Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fabricating the Fantastic

 "The Jackalope"Bob McConnell,  Michigan State University Museum
I'm delighted to begin work this week as the new director of the Museum of Culture and Environment (MCE) at Central Washington University, in Ellensburg WA. It is my hope that the MCE will continue to develop innovative, thought provoking exhibitions in close partnership diverse community organizations and individuals in the Kititas Valley, in Central Washington and beyond. I'm hoping the museum will also serve as a cross-roads for exciting interdisciplinary conversations at the intersection of the human sciences, the arts and humanities, and the physical and biological sciences. In the years to come we hope to host and faciliate important dialogues between the academy and the broader public on a range of vital issues related to cultural and biological diversity--in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe.

In Fall 2012, we're pleased to be hosting a traveling exhibition from the Michigan State University Museum, "Tall Tale Postcards, Storytelling through the Mail," an exhibition described at:
The show explores the genre of the tall tale postcard, often hilarious images that strain credibility while promoting local attractions.  The exhibition will be viewable starting from Thursday, September 29; our official opening event will be on Thursday, October 6 at 4:00 pm. We'll be featuring the gift 'cowboy storyteller' Hank Cramer, who will share some tall tales with us around a 'campfire' in the museum lobby in Dean Hall. Please stop by!

In support of the exhibition, we are also planning an interdisciplinary symposium, "Fabricating the Fantastic: The Pleasures and Perils of Exaggeration in American Culture," tentatively scheduled for Monday, October 31 (Halloween!)  from 4:30-6:00 p.m, in the Museum lobby.  Hyperbole, to be sure, exists in the narratives of all human cultures, but many, Mark Twain, among them, have argued that the Tall Tale is a quintessential American art form. The genre, drawing on Old World and Native American trickster imagery, appears to have developed in successive American frontier spaces; it may have been deeply influenced by the circulation during the early 19th century of the popular pamphlet Rudoph Raspe's Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, as the Baron's delightfully fantastical exploits were adapted and retold along the expanding American frontier.  Some scholars have argued that the hilarity and manifest absurdity of the tall tale genre served important community building functions along the frontier, as persons of diverse backgrounds struggled with unfamiliar natural environments and fluid, unstable social contexts, reassured by the knowing 'wink of the eye' in absurdist story-telling.  In his marvelous fantastical novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman proposes that the well known American penchant for building absurdly exaggerated roadside attractions (from towering Paul Bunyans to giant Holstein cows) is motivated by the dimly understood impulse to mark "places of power" on the American landscape,  a complex mosaic that continues to attract awe and anxiety generations after colonization.

In addition to tall tales and roadside attractions we'd like to consider the significance of exaggeration in other human endeavors, including artistic and scientific pursuits. Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss suggests in The Science of the Concrete that all art is predicated on suppression of certain features or dimensions (such as size or dimensionality) and the radical intensification or exaggeration of others (such as color or contrast). Scientists, in order to communicate or emphasize particularly salient patterns in complex data sets, often need to exaggerate or intensify specific elements in graphical representations of scientific discoveries. (The use of digitally enhanced colored imagery in the Hubble Space Telescope photographs of deep space phenomena is a particularly prominent example of this practice.)

To be sure, in some contexts,  hyperbole is less than benign; the same narrative and aesthetic devices that provide such delight in the Tall Tale and such edification in scientific drawings, may be deployed in support of stereotyping, demagoguery, know-nothingism and violent intolerance. In the symposium we'd like to consider the often enigmatic line between positive and negative uses of exaggeration.

Halloween, a holiday that calls forth the creative impulse towards hilarious (and horrific) exaggeration, seems an appropriate day to contemplate the power of hyperbole. We invite students, faculty, staff and community members to attend the symposium, wearing whatever wildly exaggerated costumes that suit their fancy!

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