Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Textbook explores chicana chicano image in pop media

Not quite a review of

Seductive Hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America

William Anthony Nericcio.

Michael Sedano

I have never liked "cute" books, nor been tolerant of attempts to make difficult subject matter palatable by spinning the matter in a "cute" manner, so I found myself surprised to be enjoying Memo Nericcio’s textbook in film criticism with the ee cummings-like title, Tex[t]-Mex.

The publisher, the University of Texas press, presents the text in the staid, straight-forward manner befitting a university
press. The text, however, is anything but a staid academic publication--witness the author's "Memo" website--a fact Nericcio takes note of in one of his many personal divagations away from his learned critique of stereotypes of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. UT Press, however, has generously shared the book's introduction at the link above.

Nericcio takes on a deeply serious subject, declaring:

And lest we, through some momentary brain lapse or some incipient flash of collective Alzheimer's, underestimate the capacity of pictures to "infect" the masses against particular ethnic groups, we might do well to pause here and go back a few decades to consider the successes of Adolf Hitler. At one point, this diminutive homicidal imagineer, one of the more important m/ad executives of the twentieth century, is recorded to have ordered his media industry to create a mass of common visionaries who will "obey a law they [do] not even know but which they [can] recite in their dreams."

When one thinks of the relative status of the term "Mexican," how it is manifest in the textual record available to us as a register of the collective American unconscious, one realizes that some latter-day inheritors of Hitler's visual ideological mandate are still hard at work. One need not be a devotee of the failed European artist/Nazi potentate to suspect that the rules of the semiotic m/adman game still hold true when it comes to the representation of Mexicans and Latinos in mass culture.

Nericcio writes in an oral style. I can imagine being an undergraduate walking into a class where you look at movies and talk about them and getting hit with Nericcio's demanding words. What the heck is a "Dasein", or "scoptophiliac"? The writer-lecturer demands familiarity with a wide-ranging base of writers, and if you don't have the background, the ever-teaching lecturer explains and contextualizes his resources:

to retell the story of Rita Hayworth I have brought together extracts from Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, Rosario Castellano's "Woman and Her Image," Jacques Derrida's Limited Inc., Gayatri Spivak's "Who Claims Alterity," and Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street so as to provide points of entry (some mutually exclusive) for our reexamination of the life of Rita Hayworth. Our magnicent psychiatrist from Martinique; Latin-spewing, word-wizard diva from Mexico; departed, dashing philosophical diety from France; sari- / mini-skirt festooned fashionista and polyglot costcolonial Bengali-Ivy Leaguer; and nasty, sharp Chicana eccentric from Chicago (though of late Cisneros has been cross-dressing as a Tejana from San Antonio) all have generously agreed, through the magic of citation and the occasional footnote, to assist us on our quest. (82-83)

Text[t]-Mex is not one of those page turners to keep by the nightstand, but something to keep by your television, or wherever you think about pop culture. After reading Nericcio's chapter on the Orson Welle's movie, Touch of Evil, I want to view it and share Nericcio's delight in the dated imagery. And I'm wondering if NBC is selling a tape of A Very Retail Christmas, which I missed back on Christmas eve, 1990.

Nericcio's at his narrative best describing a world where a marketing genius with nothing but war toys is cornering the toy market. To ensure the mission, the marketing guy infiltrates Santa's workshop with an elf-troll halfbreed named Freddy Lopez. After dropping that on the reader in a wonderful climactic paragraph, the teacher reiterates the lesson:

Latino name, Latino physiognomy: unshaved, accented, and duplicitous--Iago is his spiritual godfather, Caliban his great-uncle; Othello is somewhere there, too, given the Lopez puppet's 'skin' color. This mixed-blooded creature's shrewd, greasy evilness is palpable; he is nothing more and nothing less than a shadowy bandido [sic] running amok in the pristine, white, snowy confines of the North Pole.

Nericcio teaches at San Diego State. I imagine his classes are heavily enrolled until the drop deadline when a certain ethnography of student declines the analysis. Nericcio does tend to overstate his case, but then, in an oral context--the University lecture--it's a style that likely engenders many a lively discussion and some serious collateral learning. At semester's end, when their revels have ended, students who listened, took notes, and thought about stuff, pop culture will have fused into the cultural canon will have fused into chicano studies will have given students some tools for looking at images in popular media. Not a bad trade-off for being required to buy and read a work that, admittedly, gets a bit precious from time to time:

But I was not writing a book about Tex-Mex; I was writing a book about Tex[t]-Mex, so I turned to that annoying and cloying but necessary bracketed [t] in the neologism "Tex[t]-Mex," which is, I admit, a tad precious and so very 1980s, but I can make no apologies for that, as that was the time when I came of age as a cultural critic and a theorist, and the intrusion of the brackets foregrounds the constructedness of "Mexicans" in movies, advertising, photography, and everything else in a way I pray my reader won't forget.

And that is Tuesday, April 24th, 2007. A good week to read a textbook and put it somewhere for frequent reference, maybe remember a favorite lecturer who infused the schooling experience into something akin to education.


Lisa Alvarado said...

I enjoyed the point underlying the hype in this one...in that sense, it reminded me of all the critical theory stuff I read in graduate school....I just think the material at its heart is so good, Nericcio doesn't need the stylistic varnish.

William A. Nericcio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William A. Nericcio said...

A big abrazo to LaBloga for the coverage of this book, but I do want to weigh in with a comment or two--more "stylistic varnish" if you will.

It is not varnish. You have to do honor to your elders and I just happen to write like those who influenced me: Harvey Kurtzman (Mad Magazine), Jacques Derrida (Papa de Deconstruction), Henry Louis Gates (Ethnic Studies Guru), Jane Gallop (Freud's niece, by way of Lucille Ball); Luce "the Juice" Irigaray (France's Rosario Castellanos), Carlos Fuentes (Mexico's Hijo...); and Ramon Saldívar (deMan's sobrino).

Throw in my Shatneresque, baroque, dyslexic prose anarchy, and things may occasionally get "precious."

But I already outed myself in the book for that, so maybe reviewers should reach for their own sassy knives in lieu of re-using the ones I handed them!

órale! c/s

Unknown said...

I don’t think that truly transformative work in cultural theory or critique can happen unless diverse representational media come together to make sense of the cultural moment or object of study in question. William Nericcio has brought us closer to this moment with Text[t] Mex and I’m grateful for this. In fact, I think it brings us closer to understanding why on May 1 police could, with vicious impunity, beat a people seeking justice. I for one would like to know or understand why Chicanas/os are the only group in this country who can be beaten in front of cameras without so much as this registering on the national indignation meter. Imagine if the same occurred in, say, an African American social justice march.

William A. Nericcio said...

Amen, Brother; Amen!