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Creative Non-Fiction




Screen Play

--The Witch
--Free WalMart

--Lyrical thread that wove together people
--Art and Mechanical Reproduction

The Witch:
Power’s Unfortunate Myth

The social phenomena of the witch trials took place in Europe between 1560 and 1700. These witch-hunts were a dangerous attempt to purge society of the alleged “witch” and her hidden conspiracies. The massive human burnings grew from the turbulent terrain of the Protestant Reformation and the unyielding tensions of the—religion based—Thirty Years’ War. The witch trials were perpetuated through violent displays of power made visible to the public. The myth of the witch in the early modern era was a cultural creation, an explosion of patriarchal control and a significant example of asymmetries in the flow of communication and power.  

In order to better understand how a genuine fear of the witch came to be constructed by elites and accepted by society, one must understand the historical circumstances of the period. The early modern era that began in 1500 came with a wave of change, social tension and religious reform. The overwhelming pressures of an agricultural society, and the unpredictability of nature’s wrath left many small villages hungry and in constant distress. Lack of scientific understanding, led uneducated publics to rely heavily on information provided by central institutions. The public wanted answers and only few voices could provide them. The fear of witches was a self- perpetuating cycle lending easy answers to societies ailments. The myth of the witch stemmed from the publics hunger to resolve issues that science and enlightenment have made “common sense” today. Black magic, the devil and witchcraft are longstanding concepts, but it was in this witch-crazed period that they had become a particularly useful scapegoat for society’s problems.

In 1500 there was total crop failure in Germany and maternal death was one in ten (Klaits, 1985).  Many towns were plagued with crop failure, disease, impotence and constant changes in weather. Rather than attempt to explain these “unexplainable” calamities, it was easy to point a finger and literally burn away fear and evils. Yet, the most absurd part of this myth is that the all-male witch hunters were not burning flags, the devils potions or writings; they were burning people and 85% of convicted witches were women (Klaits, 1985). The less fortunate, the elderly, widows and single women were perfect targets for dark crimes; they are starving, lonesome and without a man—defenceless. Blaming marginal citizens whom appeared strange because they lay outside accepted paradigms became a solution for unexplainable misfortunes in early modern Europe.

The fear of witches in Europe at this time was enhanced by the constant stress that inflicted individuals as society moved towards a capitalist economic system. The rise of a mercantile system in the 16th century created vast changes in institutions and power (Thompson, 1993). A drive for money and the principle that one should be working towards generating income, led to a new division between classes. In poverty stricken villages the beggar was accused as the witch, for she was plaguing the town with guilt and suspicion. As privatized economic relations became more prevalent, the underprivileged, the single women and senior citizens were developing an aura of dependency on those who were financially secure (Klaits, 1985). A woman without a husband was assumed to be looking other places for support. So naturally, woman’s weak character would submit to the devil’s offering. The majority of accused witches were poor and powerless, alone and helpless. The alleged witches were often villagers excluded from new capitalist development, the powerless citizens who could not keep up with changes in economic activity. The witch was a burden, a threatening, and dangerous obstruction clogging societies new financial flow.

The understanding of witches at this time was shaped by powerful religious elites; framing them as ‘outsiders’ engaging in sexual relations with the devil and in conspiracy against the church. Since the alleged witches lay outside what was considered reasonable and rational their voices were de-legitimized (Ketchum, 2004). The prosecuted were not given a chance to speak up against their accuser and forces of hegemonic power were sure to keep pushing them down. The victims did not fit the paradigm in which most people (or powerful people) saw the world and therefore, the alternative lifestyle was seen as immoral. The mainstream institutions were “rational” and anything outside of their narrow ideology was seen as irrational and illegitimate. The witches were said to be weak-minded impostors with no place in society, looking to the devil for strength, using satanic cults to bring chaos to dominant social order. This dangerous ideology led to the burning of tens of thousands stereotyped witches, as society worked to cleanse itself of the feeble but hazardous “Others”.    

The seed of the evil woman known as a witch was planted as far back as Genesis One, where woman is associated with the physical and prone to weakness. Eve was created from Adam’s rib. Therefore, the first woman is literally a secondary creature. Eve, and in turn femininity, is defined by weak, bodily nature and her original sin. Women are known to be submissive and easily tempted. By the time of the witch-hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries, the understanding of women as permissive creatures had become a powerful illusion enforced by those in power, most notably the church. The myth of witches at this time was born through societies growing fear of contradictory women and sexuality, and like most myths it worked to resolve the social issues of the period.  As Roland Barthes argues, myth is somewhat like ideology, except myth happens every time specific connotative meanings are attached to certain ideas in the interest of certain people (Barthes, 1957). In the case of the witch craze the myth seemed to be in the interest of the Christian Reformation.

The new religious views of the Christian Reformation began in 1517 and stemmed from the need for greater discipline than the Church had been encouraging. The Christian Church and The Vatican were very corrupt in Europe at this time. Citizens were able to pay off their sins; one could pay a monthly fee for sins such as adultery and incest (Klaits, 1985). This led to much controversy as many citizens began to lose faith in this central institution, thus began the Christian Reformation. The Reformation was a rigid, extreme view employed through missionary work. Missionaries would go from town to town advocating a new orthodox way of life with an emphasis on no sexual activity. A Christianisation of the community took place where each member must live a Christian life. The missionaries would persuade the towns people that any unusual sexual behaviour was devil worship. They argued, anybody worshiping the devil must be accused and burned to purify not only society, but also their own tainted soul. These dominant voices were constantly preaching that sexual engagement of any sort where sperm is lost and not used towards new life is an ungodly offence. The ideology of the Reformation was that sexual activity for pleasure is a sin. They argued that promiscuity was mostly found in the relations of the lower classes and particularly weak women whom easily submit to the seduction of the devil (Klaits, 1985). The powerful reformers moved from each town, urging communities to find their local witches and accuse them—burn them—before it is too late. The witches they spoke of were poor, alternative voices, young girls not looking to be wed, and widows. Any perspectives that did not conform to the way of life advocated by the church were assumed to be in a pact with the devil, engaging in conspiracy against dominant religious forces (Mui, 1999). The religious leaders of the reform instilled a fear of the devil and their human slaves in the public. This fearful notion was used to create support for the reformers and worked as a mechanism for social control.

In early modern Europe, a public sphere did not yet exist. Higher powers such as the Church worked to embody the general public through forms of what Jurgen Habermas calls, ‘representative publicness’ (Thompson, 1993). The church and other large institutions stood in as a proxy for the public. Though, with the rise of the mercantile system individuals were slowly developing more control over their own affairs, both political and religious leaders were still a symbol of public life. Ecclesial authority was highly revered and went unquestioned. With shifting economic systems, institutional centers needed to find means to assure their power would not be distorted along with the new societal structure. The concept that some people may be engaging in devil worship and attempting to overthrow church ideals was the beginning of a violent hegemonic struggle. As Vai-Lam Mui argues in her account of the trials, “during the period many of the elites—the bishops, magistrates, and lawyers—had accepted the notion that some people were engaged in a conspiracy against the Christian church. Many massive witch-hunts occurred because the political elites used them to identify and eliminate real or imagined opposition to their authority” (Mui, 1999). In this case, 85% of those eliminated voices were female and the vast majority were poor or elderly (Klaits, 1985). The authorities used the myth of a witch to eradicate their opponents, in pursuit of preserving their power.

The elites in the early modern era feared possible public upheaval. So, they used their power to legitimate violence (Thompson, 2005). The communal display created around massive burnings during the witch trials implanted fear in all those within miles. It was an affirmation of power, where the ruling few are made visible to the many terrified eyes of the public. In “The New Visibility” John Thompson discusses how the visibility of sovereign power often works to reinforce social control, “power was linked to the public manifestation of the strength and superiority of the sovereign…in which few were made visible to the many…used as a means of exercising power over the many”(Thompson, 2005). Those in command would be sure citizens could see crowds celebrating the purification, hear prayers of religious leaders and see the smoke of burning flesh. It was a presentation of power and control. It was a visualization of political and religious authority and it kept the accusations coming as the panic spread.

However, power was not made manifest solely in public burnings. The control of the elites was publicized through other forms of horrible unrestricted torture as well. Witch hunters were told to search for a “witches tit”: a sort of third nipple given to the witch for the devil to feed from during mass sexual orgies, which they are said to participate in at witches’ gatherings or Sabbats. The distinctively female body parts—breast and labia—were the known home for the devils teat (Barstow, 1994). Hunters would force women to publicly remove their clothing while the male searcher would poke at her “sinful places” and strip her not only of her clothing but also of her dignity. In town squares, in markets and outside their own homes, the inquisitors would come and force women to reveal themselves and prove their innocence. Yet, those women were the lucky ones. They were most likely educated or well-off (and with a husband who paid) giving her the chance to prove accusations wrong.

As the overriding leaders would pry about the naked female body, crowds would gather and gossip would spread (Barstow, 1994). The public probing of women’s bodies not only reinforces women as weaker and more susceptible to seduction than men, it is also saying women must be controlled and if necessary punished by men. This act of public nudity and harassment seems highly contradictory, because the religious and political powers that lead the witch-hunts were preaching against sexuality. They feared the lascivious nature of women. So, they would make these nude interrogations public, revealing this aggressive act to the whole town in order to prove themselves sexually dominant over women. Not only did it prove their sexual dominance, it confirmed their social control. Furthermore, by women being displayed naked—as a sort of erotic freak show—it made them out to be the hypersexual, weak-willed creatures that the church had been warning the public about for all these years.

Once the witch trials began, they slowly increased in numbers. As one town would be plagued with maleficent magic, so would the neighbouring town and all those who heard by word of mouth. The very moment that political and religious forces came together to create the witch hunts was the spark in a wild fire, which would burn throughout Europe for years to come. As publicity of witch-hunts and precautionary tales began to increase, so did accusations and death tolls. Big crowds would form around burnings and visible trials, hearsay would spread and the mind of the crowds began to meld under social pressure.

Gustave Le Bon explains the “collective mind” of crowds as irrational and often based on severely disjointed and unreasonable ideology. This is due to the unconscious state of a crowd and their lack of individual reasoning (Le Bon, 1995). Before a member in a group decides to make any sort of uproar or social change, they see what those around them are doing and are often held back by it. The decision of individuals to participate or to resist in the witch phenomenon depended highly on what others around them were doing (Mui, 1999). What a person trapped in a crowd believes becomes so caught up in the intensity of the ideology surrounding them. We can see this “collective mind” manifest itself as the public would gather to watch an execution of their neighbour and alleged witch.  After citizens view the treatment of the alternative voices in their community they realize they must point a finger before they are accused themselves.

People slowly began to adopt the rationality of the elites, fearful and without alternatives they inevitably conformed. As each member added another link in the chain of rumours and heresy the beliefs began to spread. Scholars have long emphasized the idea of collective political action and its coordination problems. Once the mind of a crowd takes over, one loses much sense of what is rational and becomes dependant on how others will react. As Gustave Le Bon argues in The Ideas and Imagination of Crowds, the mind of a crowd is less influenced by many little horrific incidents than one large catastrophe, even if those minor incidents in total affected the lives of many more then that major incident. Their sentiment is highly affected by events that shock their imagination through visual images (Le Bon, 1995). A clear example of the appeal to citizen’s pathos is manifest in the display of public burnings and sexual torture. “A public execution in the market square became a spectacle in which sovereign power took its revenge” (Thompson, 2005). The visualizations of horrific torment became a huge part in the perpetuation of witch-hunts. The mind of crowds is highly impressionable; their conscience is alerted only in how situations are portrayed. The massive manifestations of control during the witch trials worked to shock and stimulate anxious viewers.

Another vital factor that played right into the hands of the elites in the time of the witch-craze was the unbalanced distribution of literature coming from the church. This one-sided argument produced a ‘your with us or against us’ mentality, which worked to scare the populace into treaty. This biased and terrorizing literature also led to the lifting of many vital laws. The early modern period was posed between the middle ages and the industrial revolution. Communications were beginning to develop and the printing press was in swing, but publications were only available to a privileged few. Select writings at this time were distributed through the church and filtered through the upper classes. The Witch-Bull was a papal document moved by two Dominican inquisitors from 1484 onwards. Its purpose was to remove the judicial obstacles preventing religious leaders from carrying out witch-persecutions (Kors, Peters, 1972). It preached the new fright among the church in upper Germany. The Witch-Bull begins by explaining characteristics of the suspected witch, “by their incantation, charms and conjuring… they afflict a torture with dire pains and anguish…hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving” (Kors, Peters, 1972). The preachers go on to say, “[it] is our duty to remove all impediments by which in any way the said inquisitors are hindered in the exercise of their office, and to prevent the taint of heretical pravity and of other like evils from spreading their infection to the ruin of others” (Kors, Peters, 1972). As this piece of propaganda spread throughout the upper classes a dread of lower classes engaging in devil worship began to increase. Since the majority of the public did not have access to these papal documents, a fear grew in the elites of the peasants. The very use of the term “heretical pravity” in the Witch-Bull proves the terror was of those who do not follow the church—and those outsiders must be brought to justice.

The Witch-Bull was the beginning of a slippery slope. After it’s release in the end of the 1400s, many other papal documents emerged with the same detrimental affects. Between 1486 and 1521 the Malleus Malefacarum was produced. From 1576 to 1679, sixteen editions of the Malleus Malefacarum were reborn. This piece of literature used a convincing and deceiving strategy, claiming to “set forth the truth”. The Malleus Malefacarum misquoted and spun the earlier work of church officials, most notably, St. Thomas Aquinas on his philosophy of evil. The scheme was to quote official church authority and smear that valid point into assertions of their own, making the absurdity of their view seem logical. This papal document also claimed that one man’s experience is valid evidence for conviction, which opened doors for unjust accusations (Summers, 1971). Another document made available by the church at that time was the Index Libervm Prohibitorum. Published in 1559 this document presented a list of books prohibited by the church. The authorities told the public that these books were considered sinful to read and anyone caught with them would be assumed to be in association with the devil (Klaits, 1985). All of the mentioned documents were especially important because the church put them forth, speaking on behalf of “apostolic authority”. This gave the discourse a particular validity and consequentially, it was taken by the public like a hypodermic needle model injection. The church tradition was “Truth” and those opposed were silenced by torture, prison and death.

During the time of the witch-trials the infestation of the “Other” was seen as so sever that establishment was inclined to lift previous laws and restrictions. As seen in the aforementioned Witch-Bull, many church authorities and inquisitors were arguing they could not purge Europe of the witch infestation with all the restraints on torture and required evidence. Additionally, the Malleus Malefacarum argued, feasible evidence can be found in a sole mans experience. As a result, in 1532 the German imperial law Carolina stating that nobody can be tortured without “proper cause” was lifted (Klaits, 1985). The rationale behind this was that the crime of witchcraft was impossible to prove because evidence of a pact with the devil is hard to collect. This led authority to see torture as legitimate and necessary for the confession of dark crimes and the naming of accomplices.
In the end of the 16th century torture was normalized and accepted widely throughout Germany and regions of Eastern Europe (Mui, 1999). With torture acceptable and lack of evidence permissible, the voice of the prosecuted was completely lost. At this point, the dominant powers in the hunts were easily able to pull and warp confessions out of the suffering and helpless victims. The European witch-hunts had spun out of control. Torture and burnings led to more confessions and panics multiplied.

By 1700 over tens of thousands of human beings were burned on the account of practicing witchcraft. The voices of the poor, the elderly and single women were left out of the mainstream and in turn, they made up most of the accused. This explosion of patriarchal, ecclesiasticaland political power was made manifest in many realms of public life. Information and knowledge flowed from dominant voices down into public receptacles. Fear and propaganda was used as a tool for social control. A manifestation of power, where many gazed onto the few strong leaders created an intense emotional environment and forced conformity upon the crowd. As affected individuals continued to point fingers at neighbours and strangers alike, villages were torn apart by inquisitions and a purification of societies dark sorcerers took hold.

Myths are nothing apart from those whom tell them. The myth of the witch was a historical, underlying, misogynistic tale that had been reformed and manipulated for the interests of those in power. The witch was a social construct taken from history and built into a prejudice fear of the unknown. The early modern witch-hunts can set an example for contemporary society. The “witch” today may not be burned, but is still alienated and persecuted. The single woman is still seen as threatening because she is not under the control of a man. Fear of age is still very much alive, the ideal woman is under 35, (maybe after that they do not seem to be a worthy potential mother or lover). The “poor witch” is still relevant in our class divisions, people in the city certainly have stereotypical views of rural life (drunks, unsophisticated, weak morals, sleazy women). Societies fear of the “Other” is a reoccurring theme in the Western world. A Christianisation of the world may be past, but an Americanization has long been brewing. Marginalized voices are constantly being pushed down and the “witches” in our society are still those outside of mainstream rationale, many still categorized as irrational freaks. The de-legitimization of alternative perspectives continues to grow far into the 21st century. The early modern era was crammed with stress. Naive perspectives of nature, economic change and religious uproar were contributing factors in the unfortunate European witch-hunts; what is our excuse?


Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: Controlling Women’s Bodies. Dover Publications,
1994: pp. 129-145.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957: pp14-20.

Janzen, David. Witch-hunts, Purity and Social Bounderies: The Expulsion of the Foreign Women in Ezra 9-10, Journal for the study of the Old Testament Suplement Series 350. Sheffield Academic Press, 2002: pp. 55-83.

Ketchum, Cheri. If a Radical Screams in the Forest, Will She be Heard?: The hegemony of instrumental rationality, Journalism, 2004: pp. 31-49

Klaits, Joseph. Servants of Satan. Indiana University Press, 1985: pp8-86.

Kors, Alan C & Peters, Edwards. Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700: A Documentary History. University of Pennsylvania, 1972: pp. 107-112.

Le Bon, Gustave. The Crowd. Transaction Publishers, 1995: pp. 43-81.

Mui, Vai-Lam. Information, Civil Liberties, and the Political Economy of Witch-hunts. Oxford University Press, 1999: pp. 1-33.

Summers, Montague. From The Malleus Malefacarum. Dover Publications, 1971: pp.41-48, 66-73, 205-218.

Thompson, John. A Theory of the Public Sphere, Media, culture and Society, Vol.10, 1993: pp.173-189.

Thompson, John. The New Visibility, Theory Culture and Society, 2005: pp. 31-51.


Free Wal-Mart!

As a scholar of Media Information and Techno-culture, (which to name in itself is a mouthful of self-indulgent jargon) I’m constantly exposed to the alternative mainstream, a cultural—or shall I say sub-cultural—phenomenon that itches my supple, moisturized skin day in and day out. The teachings of the Media Information and Techno-culture (MIT) faculty argue that society’s suffering from a lack of diverse voices in the mainstream media. They say few dominant “players” are dealing the cards that define how everyone is to play the “game” of life. And the pathetic analogies don’t stop there. There are few “key holders” whom are “gate keepers” of “Truth”, “reality” and “news”. And this excessive use of “quotation marks” is only just beginning. The MIT mantra says audiences in recent years have become “mindless dupes” of media and “culture”. Capitalism has commodified the human “self” in the drive for money and power, power and money—money is power. We’ve become alienated from our human community, and now, I’m told, society’s suffering from the asymmetrical distribution of power and money, money and power—money is power.

All of these facts, or rather, arguments are true and detrimental to a healthy public sphere. Yet, what irritates me is that MIT-hipsters are arguing for their “cause”, but they still fail to see outside their paradigm, just as “those” they argue against have failed to do.
Don’t they see the hypocrisy stuck to the leg of their skinny jeans and the contradiction trailing on the bottoms of their converse shoes?

Ideology is inescapable. MIT has taught me this much. Though, how MIT-ers think they are exempt from this matter leaves me with hives. Often they lecture on specific situations, where “few are made visible to the many” lending the “few” to have great power over the many. Predictable cases of evidence appear each time, the panopticon, the political speech, the feudal lord and others I render obsolete. True, I say; but look at the format of a classroom. As the students sit in a lecture format we are the feared “mindless dupes” of the theories they preach. We’re engaging in an inclusive, and therefore, exclusive discourse. Our leftist “ideology” is no less biased than one that is right.

I recognize the difficulty in leaving natural biases behind. But, it’s not the natural biases I find frightening. It’s the blind eye turned to the contradiction that’s so clear to me: We are the Institution we are taught to fear. We’re the culprits of “popular society” as we know it. We’re a contradiction in terms. We’re the alternative mainstream.

The University’s a corporate institution. This fact doesn’t bother me. What baffles me is that this institution is ironically teaching me to fear the corporate structure, which supports it.

Much of the MIT program’s about finding a space for positive social change; this means we must critique current repressive structures in order to understand the roots of social issues. Yet, once the problem’s identified where’s the solution? In my fourth year I have yet to come across a primarily solution-oriented syllabus. I may be coming off as resentful towards my faculty of choice. However, I enjoy what I learn and want to keep learning in this realm of thought, which is why this irritates me so. For, In order to understand one side wholly, we must still look at the other sides and analyze why we don’t believe in them. We’re being deprived of a multiplicity of voices. We’re engaging in one-sided debate. We’re drooling dogs chasing our tails. We’re the “mindless dupes” we’ve been taught to scorn. We’re paying extra dollars for the rips in our jeans. We’re a contradiction in terms. We’re the alternative mainstream.

But I… I’ve taken “alternative” to another level of hypocrisy in writing this piece. For I am not only a dupe of MIT, who criticizes mindless dupes to seamlessly seal my own “alternative” image. I’ve just gone ahead and placed myself outside the alternative mainstream dupes of MIT by criticizing the dupe criticizers, which makes me ultra alternative mainstream dupe (or ult-alt, for short).


The Lyrical Thread That Wove Together People:

Music in the African American Diaspora

“It is the ones with the sorest throats who have done the most singing”
—Connor Oberst, Bright Eyes

“We are a little fed up with this voter registration business…we want our coloured people to live like they’ve been living for the last hundred years—peaceful and happy”
—Sheriff Z.T. Mattherws, After he interrupted and broke up a mass meeting in Terrell Country

“The Music, The Music, this is our history.”
--LeRoi Jones, 1963

Music provokes intense emotion unlike any other medium. Music can take one out of past and future anxieties and bring them into a deepened present experience where they can get lost in the beat. Song can be a collective form of communication, a spiritual or personal experience and can offer subjective meanings behind each intonation. Music works as a platform for self-expression. It offers a microphone to marginalized voices of countercultures, ethnic traditions, and religions. Specifically, for the African American Diaspora, music has manifested as an inspirational force of power, protest and communication.

In the 17th century, African men, women and children were transported to Europe and the Americas. From the middle passage across the Atlantic, people were shipped under horrific conditions—like any other commodity—to be put up for trade. Only half of these human beings survived the tormenting journey, a journey that would condition them for centuries of mistreatment. They were brought across the ocean to be sold as slaves, to realize Western dreams of freedom, progress and money. They were stepping-stones on the American path to profit. With them they brought no possessions and no life, resulting in a mass genocide of African culture. But amongst all of this darkness there was a need to hold onto something their own, a need to communicate amongst lost family and friends. Amongst all of the darkness there was a need for communicating light.
The Black oral tradition wove a lyrical thread that offered a glimmer of hope in solidifying a brutalized identity. Voices long silenced had so much to sing for. Music worked as a bridge to tie their African past to the struggles of an American future—across the cotton fields, across the American South, across the decades to come. Song offered the African-American community a language of their own that transcended the ties of hate bound to their skin. The musical nature of African American protest began in the cotton fields of the Mississippi; it let out a cry during the Civil Rights movement; it popularized the voice of strong Black female activists like Nina Simone; it offered Africans a way to ground themselves in the blues of American discrimination.

Music offers a type of identity formation. Music arises like identity: from circumstances, specific social and cultural situations at different times. As Africans arrived on American soil, their identities diminished, they used music in response as a form of communication to situate themselves. “The music, as well as the “practical activity” that music induces, serves as a location of “strategy” amongst and between diasporic actors. Through this connection both identity and political movement can be (re)negotiated and enacted” (Redmon 25). Here, the “practical activity” that music induces is the communication and formation of identities across time and space. Music offered Black slaves transcendence from terrible circumstance. Song is not limited to time or place; it spans generations, regions and builds bridges across communities. In turn, both music and identity are constantly changing and modifying the other. Music can become interpreted on many levels and became strategic for African slaves in America. It offered a platform for communication across plantations; it provided a free form of articulation and communal bondage. Through a lyrical language—that was unique to the circumstance and identity of slaves—they were able to harness the power of music to sing through tough times.

Music is a language—beyond the restraints of conventional words. This is why Simon Frith argues that song is so important and predominant in popular culture, “because people need them to give shape and voice to emotions that otherwise cannot be expressed without embarrassment or incoherence” (Frith). For African American slaves, music became a language outside the knowledge of slave owners and beyond the restraints of so many “unspeakable” words. Workers out in the fields devised creative ways to communicate through “work songs” and “field hollers” (Gridely 29). Charlie Patton, early practitioner of the country blues, provides exemplary songs like “Mississippi Boweavil Blues,” which is peppered in field hollers derived from work on the plantations. Many “work songs” had meaning in their own community and some songs even had meaning across communities.

For example many seemingly innocent spiritual slave songs were embedded with codes, which communicated secret messages about the Underground Railroad. Songs like “Wade in the Water” are said to have warning signals, informing slaves to travel along the riverbank. Many slaves at the time could not read or write. Song lyrics provided a way to pass down messages beyond the boundaries of plantation owners. Even more interesting is that later these same songs were used in the civil rights movements. When African Americans were not allowed on the beach because of Jim Crow laws they went down in large numbers to protest, what they called “wade-ins.” Dorothy Cotton told her story of a “wade-in,” during the civil rights movement. Cotton’s story began with a broken jaw and ended saying, “after the beating we went away. We sang, ‘Wade in the Water’ and decided to go back another day” (Carawan 132). This example does not only show the use of song as a platform for African American communication, but also the subjective nature of music, allowing it to transcend time or place. The same tune sang to both slaves escaping plantations and the civil rights activist later protesting during wade-ins. Music offers an emotional experience that is both personal and collective—and subjective—beyond circumstance.

Another common musical technique used by slaves out in the fields of plantations was “call and response.” This format is where one individual offers a phrase, in a sense like a question. Another person or group responds with a new phrase in answer (Gridely 41). Call and response comes directly from sub-Saharan Africa, where it is used for democratic discussion. Call and response techniques can be both vocal and instrumental and have been used in church, public meetings, civic affairs, blues and jazz music. This communal tradition was one that African men and women held onto in the New World. Call and Response format offered slaves a bonding communication, where one individual takes a step forward and calls upon the collective to respond. It is recognizable in the speeches of Martin Luther King and is still manifested in all sorts of African influenced music (blues, jazz, gospel) today.

Both “work songs” and “call and response” bring up interesting communication techniques. Both are primarily two-way; that is, “they permit both the production and consumption of information, and its transformation into knowledge and action” (Lipschutz 24). And both forms of lyrical communication find ways to have a far more quantitative effect than would seem possible. Music served a purpose in itself—song being spiritual, communal and transcendental—but also served a larger purpose in facilitating African American contact. As Shana Redmon explains, “music serves as both the “sign” (descriptor) and “aid” (determinant) within communities in their attempt to articulate an identity or agenda. This process is entirely dependent on the circumstances which surround the community in question,” (Redmon 26). The songs sung in African American communities were not only telling in themselves, but also provided a greater purpose within communities. Melody worked within the African Diaspora to not only communicate struggle, but also facilitated groups meetings, slave escapes and the dispersion of news. Music provided “an identity or agenda” for the community in many circumstances; without other means to disseminate information across communities and plantations, African Americans used their own alternative communication strategy: song. Their traditional hymns—seemingly innocent—helped to form a more quantitative mobilization than would have otherwise been possible.

Hundreds of years after arriving on American soil, change finally erupted for the equality of all people Black and White. Some have described the civil rights movement as the greatest singing movement the United States has experienced (Carawan 3). Perhaps this is because the civil rights movement was a result of more than a hundred years of suffering in African American communities. This was something to sing about. Furthermore, “the black church was the heart of these communities—a source of spiritual and physical sustenance—and singing was central to the worship experience” (Carawan 3).  Activist groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference pulled members together to discuss their civil rights strategies, but also to sing. After these meetings members would bring many new freedom songs home with them. Most of these songs were based on traditional church hymns, adapted for the expression of new social conditions. “Most of the singing of the civil rights movement was congregational; it was sung unrehearsed in the tradition of the Afro-American folk church…from the reservoir, activist song leaders made a new music for a changed time” (Carawan 5). As the movement began to spread so did its song.

Candie Anderson, a songwriter during the movement, speaks of her experience with song after being imprisoned in Nashville in February 1960. She was arrested during a sit-in and held at the segregated Nashville City Jail. She recalled, “it was one of the first instances where large numbers of students went behind bars, and we found that singing was truly good for the spirit. For two white girls, alone in a cell and only in sound’s reach of the other students, the music offered a bond for friendship and support” (Carawan 20). Anderson’s statement “in sound’s reach” illustrates a specific instance where music transcends space. Though the protesters were unable to physically gather, their voices rose past the restraints and mingled freely in the air.

Later, Candie Anderson wrote lyrics for the song “They Go Wild Over Me,” an adaptation of the old parody “The Popular Wobbly” from the First World War. Anderson’s song had powerful lyrics referencing her literal and metaphorical imprisonment; “he locked me up and threw away the key, in a segregated cage…will those bed sheet wearin’ whites still yell “Down With Civil Rights” or will justice have come to Tennessee?” (Carawan 21). Many folk songs and protest songs are adapted from older tunes. This example too, shows music’s ability to transcend time, where the same melody can touch people through the years. Even several well-known and talented songwriters like Bob Dylan adapt old folk songs and paint over old melodies with topical relevancy. Dylan’s 1963 song “Masters of War” comes from the medieval folk tune “Nottamun Town,” which is said to be about the English Civil War.

In March 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality began the “Freedom Rides.” The “Riders” were a small biracial group who rode Greyhound and Trailway buses from Washington to New Orleans and Los Angeles. Their goal was to challenge any segregation bound to confront them along the way (Carawan 44). Several parodies to many familiar melodies came out of the Freedom Rides. Marilyn Eisenberg, a Freedom Rider from California recalled 13 different songs barrowing tunes from communal classics like “Frere Jacques” and “Yankee Doodle.” The following words go along with the tune of “Yankee Doodle”:

Freedom Riders came to town
Riding on the railway,
Mississipi locked them up
Said you can’t even use the Trailways.
      Mississippi, you are wrong,
      You’ve gone against the nation
      We’ll keep coming big and strong
      And we’ll end segregation!
(Carawan 55)

This tune is exemplary in showing the adaptation of familiar melody to topical social issues. It allows many voices to sing-a-long together, simply, honestly and powerfully. Much like a religious group or even a camp sing-a-long there is a sense of “collective pride” being constructed in song. Different genres of music work to construct different collective identities, a national anthem works to produce patriotic pride, as a chant or a cheer may build team spirit. As Simon Frith argues, “‘traditional’ Irish folk songs are still the most powerful way to make people feel Irish” (Frith). The collective feeling of many voices in harmony with one and other immediately builds societal connections.

However, some of the most powerful songs from the Civil Rights movement did not come from group adaptation, but from soloists. Aggressive female vocalists like Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Bessie Smith, Big Momma Thorton and Billie Holiday are just a few of the many African American singers to lend a powerful voice to Black people, women and protest. These female vocalists tackled “unspeakable” social issues through song. Unable to do each vocalist justice in the few pages of my paper, I will concentrate on Nina Simone in particular, as an archetypal woman of this category.
Simone’s career began in the 1950s, but her recognition came along with the civil rights movement in the 1960s. In the late 1950s Simone moved to New York City to try and get gigs as a pianist. She hung around the Village Gate, a folk club that showcased musicians like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. In her autobiography Simone recalls life in the Village. “Politics was mixed in with so much of what went on…that I remember it now as two sides of the same coin, politics and jazz” (Simone 67). Politics landed a clear voice in Simone’s lyrics. She explicitly expresses her views on race politics in many of her songs. Though it is hard to find a tune of Simone’s where she isn’t engaging in social commentary, in her autobiography, Simone describes her 1963 song, “Mississippi Goddam” as her “first civil rights song” (Simone 89). She goes on to explain two violent acts in 1963 that were, “the match that lit the fuse,” which would push her into writing “Mississippi Goddam” and her taking on her activist role (Simone 89).

The first violent act she references was when Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi shook hands with the member of the Ku Klux Klan accused of the assassination of African American civil rights activist Medgar Evers (Simone 89). The second was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls at Sunday school, in Birmingham, Alabama (Simone 89). Then came her powerful civil rights tune: “Mississippi Goddam”:

Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day's gonna be my last…
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me.
(Carawan 193)

Here she references both the trail of the Underground Railroad and the arrest of children protesters in Alabama. Maintaining close proximity to real events made Simone riskier than many other—less overt—vocalists. In her autobiography, Simone wrote that she did not associate herself with the non-violence of activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., but held the belief that “true equality” could only come about through a “top to bottom” change in America, starting with “black revolution” (Simone 100). This is evident as she vocalizes anything but a passive stance.

On August 28th 1963 more than 200,000 people from across the nation, representing all the major civil rights organizations, Black and White, marched on Washington D.C., expressing their demands for action and racial harmony. The official theme song of the march was “We Shall Overcome.”
One cannot describe the vitality and emotion this one song evokes across the Southland. I have heard it sung at great mass meetings with a thousand voices singing as one; I’ve heard half-dozen singing it softly behind the bars of the Hinds Country Prison in Mississippi; I’ve hear old women singing it on the way to work in Albany, Georgia; I’ve heard the students singing it as they were dragged away to jail. It generates power that is indescribable. –Wyatt Tee Walker
(Carawan 15)

Music offered a way for Africans, sold into slavery in America, to situate themselves. Song helped to weave people together. It helped to hold onto a traditional African identity, during centuries of cultural genocide. Music posed as a platform for communication transcending time and space.  Song allows for re-purposing: it remained relevant from the cotton fields, to the Freedom Rides, to “Mississippi Goddam” and “We Shall Overcome”. Music provided the African American Diaspora with a free form of expression and an alternative communication medium. Raising voices through inspirational protest, through the collective, through the formation of a personal and cultural identity—across time and space—freedom songs were sung and their power still reverberates.

Works Cited:

Carawan, Candie, and Guy. “The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its
Songs.” Bethlehem. Pennsylavania: Sing Out Corp., 1990.

Frith, Simon. “The Industrialization of Popular Music.” Popular Music and
Communication 2nd Edition James Lull (ed). London: Sage, 1992. pp. 49-74.

Gridely Gridley, Mark C. “Jazz Styles: History and Analysis.” Upper Saddle River, New
Jersey: Pearson Education, 2006.

Lipschutz, Ronnie D. “Networks of Knowledge and Practice: Global Civil Society and
Global Communications.”

Redmond, Shana L. “Anthem: Music and Politics in Diaspora, 1920--1970s.”  Diss. Yale
University, 2008. Dissertations & Theses: Full Text. ProQuest. UWO, London, Ont. Retrieved on: Nov. 16 2008, from: <http://www.proquest.com.proxy2.lib.uwo.ca:2048/> .

Simone, Nina, with Stephen Cleary. “I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina
Simone.” Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2003.


Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
From Divine Singularity to Mediated Reality


As the age of mass (re)production takes hold, we move into a world where art (graphics, film, photography) flows into our homes like any other commodity. By taking art out of its context—bringing it into the realm of the masses—we degrade its authenticity. The prerequisite for authenticity is originality. Even the most “perfect” reproduction is inauthentic.

Technological reproduction makes art independent of its unique creation, original ownership and its history. Mass reproduction takes art off its pedestal and allows it to meet humanity halfway. One can now listen to a Beethoven symphony in their kitchen. By taking art out of its higher context we remove from it the aura that once enveloped it, its unique air, its singularity. Tradition is shattered.

The presence of an aura is determined by a sense of distance and uniqueness. However, in mass culture there is a newfound need for possession, to bring things closer, to own everything. As reproduction makes this ownership possible the once singular existence of art is reduced. It is another product, in a sea of consumerism, slapped with a price tag.

Conventionally, art has had two primary values: first, a religious value; second, an exhibition value. The religious valuing of art ties it to tradition, both literally and figuratively; it hides it in a place of “divinity” and reverence. When art is brought from traditional ties to the gallery it is still accompanied by reverence and its artistic value is still subordinated to another cause, that of profit and exhibition. Nonetheless, in both cases the revered aura of  “art” remains in tact.

However, in the age of mechanical reproduction art has been separated from ritual and brought into the realm of function. Photography, film and art for popular reproduction have a purpose beyond high praise. The aura surrounding art has declined, providing opportunity for people to actively involve themselves in it. Art can now have a place in politics.

In the early 19th century, when photographs began to capture unique perspectives of daily life, their place in magazines—along with their captions—became politically significant. More than a title of a painting, the caption of a photo provides the agenda for a snapshot. Film does this in the extreme, as its purpose is more explicit than just one picture. Film isn’t just a snapshot, but a sequence of them, exposing an agenda or purpose through narrative.

In film, opposed to on stage, actors are mediated by cameras. Technological mediation is used to create an illusion of an immediate environment. The consequence is that the camera acts as an audience would. The actor’s presence—and in turn, their aura—is lost in mediation. The acting process is not holistic it is fragmented into many takes, cuts and montages. Then, film acting is not based around a singular artistic vision; the mystical aura is disassembled. This questions notions of “art” because the sphere of “beautiful semblance” and singularity was traditionally considered the only place where art could flourish.

Now, the film actor—similar to a factory worker—makes a product. Audiences are removed from reception; production is removed from consumption. This leads to anxiety because the actor is aware of an audience, but distanced from it. The film industry has responded to this lack of tangible presence—removal of human aura and alienation anxiety—by constructing actors’ “personality” outside the studio. This phenomenon is the celebrity. 

The stories told by films, like sports, allow audiences to witness great human triumph. Viewers of these accomplishments feel like winners too, like they have been imparted with new expert knowledge. This can arouse possibility in audiences and perhaps encourage mobilization.
The collective environment of films is also a significant aspect of their reception. The presence of a mass audience precludes individual reactions. Group reception and participation questions the passive nature of art, bringing film into a realm where catharsis becomes a collective form of release.
The new era of aesthetics has removed the aura that once held art as unattainable. 

Art has been liberated into a mass form of (re)production and expression. Yet, though mass reproduction provides opportunity for mass expression it does not demand it. The new era of mass culture has also influenced the growing of mass society and the working class—those who have no control over the means of production, but work for them. Fascist politics has attempted to provide opportunity for emotional expression of the masses, but not emancipation, equality or change.

Fascism introduces new aesthetics, like film and photography, into politics. Fascism is utilizing modern aesthetic values to construct a heroic image of war. This image is in favour of fascist rule, keeping the traditional property system in place and the masses in line. War provides a way to mobilize the masses while maintaining power in the hands of the status quo. In response, communism introduces art as a form of political criticism. The most difficult task now won’t be for the masses to receive the messages of film and art, but will be to mobilize masses—with these new forms of art—to create political and critical change.


Today, decades away from Benjamin and fascist Germany, the concept of an aura surrounding “art” seems like a spoof. Mass society is fragmented. Critical expression is disjointed and confused. The Internet, camera-phones, citizen journalism and film production equipment available to anyone with a couple hundred dollars, obviously and drastically alters Benjamin’s argument and the nature of “mass culture” and “art”. Nonetheless, more than half a century later, the essential pulse of Benjamin’s words resonates.

Illustrating the irony inherent in the film industry, Benjamin explains that shooting a film utilizes technology to create a reality where technology remains unseen. Technological mediation is used to create an illusion of an immediate environment. This paradox remains true in many instances of the modern culture industry.

Think “reality TV”. As young girls everywhere turn on their television sets to watch The Hills “intern” Lauren Conrad work her way up the fashionista ladder of sexy Teen Vogue offices in Los Angeles they are provided with images of a “real life” struggle to make it in the fashion industry. Cameras surround Conrad’s every move, from dinner dates, photo shoots and tearful arguments with girlfriends (over boyfriends). Audiences are stimulated by the American dream—which Conrad is “really” living!—to drop their waist to a size two, invest four-hundred dollars in shoes made for four dollars in China and live the glam life.

Reality TV does not only illustrate Benjamin’s concept of technical mediation to create an immediate reality, it also fits perfectly into his ideas of viewers feeling like “experts” living vicariously through the images they watch on the screen. Just because you watch a documentary on violation of human rights in India, doesn’t mean you are a well-travelled social activist. Likewise, just because you watch The Hills on MTV doesn’t mean you’re a wealthy socialite. In “reality” productions like this we are given the illusion of participation, but really are working to change nothing. This plays into Benjamin’s ideas of the use of aesthetics to lend society a form of expression, but not an opportunity to alter power structures or create any tangible change.  At the end of the production human rights are still being violated and power and wealth remain in the hands of an elite few.

In his epilogue Benjamin discusses fascist Germany’s appropriation of the “image industry”. Hitler used aesthetics to produce war propaganda and mobilize the masses into solidarity. The aura nazi Germany constructed for themselves was much like the aura Benjamin discussed of high-art (though Hitler remained inauthentic in today’s terms); ideology was placed on a pedestal. That is, the glorification of a singular vision. Glorification of singularity and solidarity, however, means something is excluded. In this case, that exclusion was more than just mass expression.

Adopting aesthetics into politics created dangerous images and propagated lethal myths. The Aryan race became an image of unity and the myth of impure “others” was utilized to mobilize masses into war against each other. By using propaganda to seduce emotions of the working class, to make the masses feel as if they were moving towards change, for a cause, Hitler was able to maintain control of the property system, ownership and all those under his nose. Fascism, like ancient cult art, was enveloped in an elite aura, it became something to pray to and Hitler its idol.

Yet, as Benjamin wrote he seemed to maintain optimism—a rare quality amongst Jews in Nazi Germany. He thought there was potential for the decentralization of modern art to mobilize masses towards positive change. He argued if we are given the technologies of war we are also given the technologies of healthy progress. But, even today, in a world of Obama-stewed-change, in a world of hand-held devices, where everyone’s a writer and everyone’s a critic, where social networks connect us worldwide, the “image industry” still permeates. “Representative publicness” of staged politics, where one face stands for a multitude of silenced voices, still replaces much of critical debate. Like in Benjamin’s world, the public today is offered the role of critic, of psycho-analyzer, of artist and filmmaker, of social scientist and social activist, but will they take it? Moreover, we are given the means, but what happens in the end? We are able to talk, but who holds the microphone?