Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bills, Boards, and Banners--The Written City.

My personal motto is "learn something new every day."  Its not much, and I didn't realize it for a long time, but there it is.  I've been keeping up this practice even while I have not been posting, but I miss putting things out there for discussion so here is a little clip from a book that I'm reading "City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York" by David M. Henkin.

"A lithographic advertisement from 1862 depicts a wall plastered completely with overlapping bills promoting everything from esteemed ministers to Tammany politicians to popular actresses (see fig. 4.1).  Read "downwards," as the original caption to "the Bill-Poster's Dream" instructs, the notices form such amusing messages as $100 BOUNTY WANTED A JEWESS FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY, THE AMERICAN BIBLE SOCIETY WIL MEET AT THE GAIETIES CONCERT SALOON, GREAT SPARRING EXHIBITION BY THE SIAMESE TWINS AT BARNUM'S MUSEUM, and RESTORATIVE FOR THE HAIR USE SPAULDING'S PREPARED GLUE.  The humor in this drawing lies, of course, in the characteristically urban juxtaposition of unlikely combinations of people and events, in which physical proximity forces the promiscuous intermingling of a community's disparate elements.  More specifically, the cartoon calls attention to several central features of New York's commercial sign discourse as it emerged inthe antebellum period.  First, "the Bill Poster's Dream" seems to make the pont that as signs became too numerous, their individual purposes were to a certain extent undermined as the notices bured one another in an avalanche of competing messages.  At the same time the signs blended smoothly into a shared language of publicity in which everything from politics to entertainent to religion became homogenized--it is because of their superficial graphic and discursive resemblances as well as their spatial contiguity that these overlapping words lend themselves to humerous misreadings. In addition,the effectiveness of the collage depends on what was the crucially public element in the emerging urban sign system: once a sign was placed inthe public domain it was radically severed form its oauthor's control and intentions and acquired a life of its own.  Finally, the framing of the plastered wall by a small sign reading POST NO BILLS! in the upper left corner and the sleeping bill poster (whose fantasy of an exhaustively papered wall seems like more than just a dream of a day's work completed) in the lower left dramatizes the clash between a barely conspicuous and patently ineffective public authority and a burgeoning commercial culture intent on leaving no vertical space unmarked.

Still, these bills diverged in significant ways from the fixed signs that came to dominate much of the Manhattan cityscape during the second third of the nineteenth century.  Light and flimsy, handbills and posters were mobile and had a radically different relation to urban space.   Whereas fixed signs mapped and labeled the surfaces on which they appeared and claimed the authority associated with those surfaces (speaking, in some sense, for buildings, streets, and parks), the signs featured in "The Bill Poster's Dream" have no such connection with teh wall they cover.  Rather, the bills are subsversive of the orderly relationship between private property and public writing asserted int he city's monumental commercial signage; these posted notices draw parasitically upon the visibility of the building in direct defiance of the only sign authorized to speak for it. Moreover, the posted notices are by nature temporary and refer in most cases to current events, so that they reverse the spatially specific and temporally more abstact pattern of the fixed signs...

...A vast array of ephemeral texts could be seen in the public spaces of the city, including cards passed from hand to hand, advertisements suspended over the shoulders of human beings, and banners draped across buildings during moments of civic celebration...The posters, broadsides, sandwich boards, and banners that contributed to both the hubbub and the pageantry of daily life were in many ways less like monuments and more like speech acts.  Calling them speech acts, however, obscures several crucial developments in the expanding world of mobile texts: their potentially subversive anonymity, their reliance on the impersonal authority of public space, their dramatic detachment from the control of their authors, and the ir role in the process by which writing was replacing speech as the dominant mode of public interaction."

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