The Eyeball and the Wall: Eating, Seeing, and the Nation

Elizabeth Abel

in Signs of the Times

Published by University of California Press

Published in print June 2010 | ISBN: 9780520261174
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520945869 | DOI:
The Eyeball and the Wall: Eating, Seeing, and the Nation

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Interracial eating and interracial sex: what joins this provocative pair? If drinking fountains and restrooms might be considered the pillars of the social body, sites of collective eating could be thought of as its metaphoric stomach, an even more fundamental and therefore more highly regulated site of social incorporation. Buttressed against the threat perceived in new waves of immigration during the 1920s, the restaurant wall became a figure of a national frontier, redrawn down the center of the counter when the economic pressures of the 1930s forced the racial barrier to the interior. This structure required photographers to align themselves with one side of the racially marked division or the other. This was an especially vexing dilemma during the Depression, whose widening social rifts bolstered a national faith in photography's inclusive and reparative power. The visual politics of the nation dovetailed with and found an emblematic scenario in the visual politics of segregated eating. The threads of race, gender, and visuality converge—with ironic consequences—in Dorothea Lange's photograph of a Mississippi lunch counter.

Keywords: Dorothea Lange; interracial eating; interracial sex; restaurant wall; photographers; photography; visual politics; race; gender; visuality

Chapter.  13560 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of the Americas

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