Introduction and Methodology
The southern portion of the United States has long existed as a set of parallel-though not necessarily congruent-planes. On one level, the South possesses a concrete, distinctive contingent of historical fact. On the other level, the South exists as an entity created in large part by its own mediated representations. These two modes at times meander into the other, and the (perhaps arbitrarily) separate planes tend to contradict themselves. Even what constitutes the "South" is often up for argument, and a casual perusal of the ongoing historiographical debates regarding the region-during any era-reveals an ever-increasing complex of evidence that threatens to break down any stable idea of the South completely. Perhaps thankfully then this project is not concerned with the "real" South. Instead, filtering discussion through the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I hope to explicate the role of the South as an imaginary plane in American culture. This plane, though it owes its raw source material to physical and historical reality, operates as a space of representation. In other words, this project begins with the concept of the "South," which plays itself out on a plane of representation. This is not altogether a different idea than the one that has been commonly applied to the American West. From dime novels to films, the West has also occupied the dual role of a real place and an imaginary one. Monument Valley may have a minimal role in the history of American westward expansion, but it has left its indelible mark on the idea of the West through John Ford's films. So too the South in films, books, and songs that were created by this imagined space, and created it in turn.
What distinguishes this project from a properly historical one is that "fact" per se is not the driving principle. Historians are obligated work with evidence as part of direct causal connection. A "history" of representation is far too ethereal for that approach. Substituting an historical approach for a roughly "genealogical" one-i.e. one that allows for examples picked to show continuous development over a long period-affords the opportunity to deal with the South as a conceptual (rather than factual) entity. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a film set in the 1930s in the American South. Its existence is contingent on the popular ideas about that period, but it is also contingent on the revision of those ideas in the 1960s-marking it as inevitably part of its own time (2000).
The peculiar logic of time and space in O Brother, Where Art Thou? that I will be discussing in the first section of this project is framed by a theoretical concept first proposed by the Russian thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin. For Bakhtin, the "chronotope" was an analysis of the interdependent categories of temporal and spatial in a given text. In the case of this project, the primary "text" happens to be a film. The chronotope also suggests that the space-time logic of a text is culturally determined; in O Brother, Where Art Thou? a number of tactics are used to construct a plane of representation that is possesses recognizable characteristics for the "viewer" familiar with American cultural archetypes, narrative structures, and value-systems. I will be analyzing the techniques that establish the particular chronotope of the film in Visuals and Space and Music and Space. However, in keeping with the norms of theoretical discourse, "reader" would be more accurate for an encounter with any given "text." Throughout the body of this project,
"reader" will be used to denote active viewing, since it suggests a process of deciphering the film text that the more passive form lacks. There is some difficulty in arguing this point, however. While I believe that cultural knowledge plays a significant role in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, conscientious acknowledgement is not absolutely necessary for understanding. Nor is there any Freudian "unconscious" or post-Jungian "social unconscious" necessary for this argument. Rather, I would state outright that those provisions of knowledge (cultural archetypes, narratives structures, and value-systems) are understood at least at a base level because of that same cultural determinacy in the chronotope; they are familiar simply because they are an embedded presence in the everyday cultural life of the United States. Supplementing that point, however, I hope to add a very rough list of annotations to the specific allusions that form such an important part of the film insofar as they enrich the discussion.
When I began, I noted that this project concerns itself with the South as it is represented in popular culture. That remains true, but in a larger sense this project is how concerned with how the South as a plane of representation operates as a site where and which (given the conditions of particular types of chronotopes) representation gives way to what Roland Barthes calls "mythic language." For Barthes, "mythic language" is a meta-linguistic category. Following the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure on "structural linguistics", "language" in Barthes' work is fundamentally constituted by the relationship between three categories: signified, signifier, and sign. The signified is the as yet unnamed object; for instance the physical "tree." The signifier, then, could be the word "tree" itself. Two important points here are made by Barthes. The first is that the signifier "tree" does not simply express the physical entity "tree." The second is that, in an extension of Saussure's work, language is not simply the verbal or printed word. In this, Barthes argues that language can be composed of images (like photographs or film), non-verbal sounds (like music), verbal or printed words, or any combination thereof. This is of the utmost importance to what Barthes calls "semiology" or the study of "signs," the third term in this equation. The sign then is the relationship between the signifier and the signified, which can manifest itself in a myriad of ways. Barthes extends this triangulation to the study of "mythic language," but the crucial difference is that "mythic language" is established after everyday language. This is why it falls under a "meta" category. Under particular circumstances that are culturally determinate and not (as some mythologist insist) eternal, the "sign" or relationship between signifier and signified in the first part becomes the signifier in a whole new linguistic equation. In his essay, "Myth Today," Barthes uses examples drawn from Aesop's Fables. In Aesop's work, the "fox" bears little direct relationship to the physical "fox." Instead, the concept of "fox" that constitutes the sign in the lower level equation becomes the basis for a meta-language concept that uses the signifier "fox" and the signified "cunning" or "sly" in order to establish a whole new concept of "fox." This new concept, though contingent up the first, operates separately from idea of the physical "fox."
This theoretical approach to mythology is very important
to my understanding of O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Aside from the film's setting being an idealized representation
of the "South," those same cultural archetypes, narrative
structures, and value-systems in the film noted above are,
I would argue, operating within the same meta-language of
myth that Barthes establishes in his essay. Some of the specific
cultural allusions that fall under this rubric are analyzed
in detail beginning in the section Synopsis:
Four Profiles. In this introductory section, however,
I would like to posit why I believe a synthesis of the two
dominant theories in this project are useful to my discussion
of O Brother, Where Art Thou?. In Mikhail Bakhtin's
work (which honestly defies quotation) he was primarily concerned
with literary form of the novel. For Bakhtin, the novel was
not limited to book length prose a la Don Quixote. A novel,
in this understanding, is dependant upon the idea of the "novel"
or the new. The novel is a form that can consistently regenerate
itself in a variety of ways. Bakhtin contrasts this with "dead"
forms like the lyric poem or, more importantly, the "epic."
The epic in Bakhtin's work is a form that is limited because
it already has a preexisting basic structure that cannot be
altered. Significantly, Bakhtin also posits that the "epic"
possesses a particular chronotope-a space-time logic-that
establishes it as both existing in the past, but also at a
disjunctive rupture from any linear history. The prime example
of this would be Homer's Odyssey, which can be perceived
as both "ancient Greece" and at the same time have no historical
bearing on the events of that era. It is interesting, then,
that the most lauded example of the novel in the twentieth-century,
James Joyce's Ulysses, uses the Odyssey as its
structural model. Just as interesting though is the chronotope
peculiar to Joyce's Ulysses that creates an "epic"
within the course of a single day in mundane, turn of the
century Dublin. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, though
arguably not as significant an artistic achievement as Joyce's
novel, does something similar as it draws both on the narrative
structure of the Odyssey and very pointedly alerts the reader
of the film to its epic allusions at the beginning of the
film with the words, "Based Upon the Homer's Odyssey"
and its use of a quotation from the first line of the poem.
While the film does roughly follow the narrative pattern established
in Homer's epic poem, I think that it is less useful to annotate
(as others have done with Joyce's book) the adherence or deviation
from its "source" than an alert to readers of the film that
this film is speaking, according to Barthes, a "mythic language."
By establishing this mode of discourse immediately as the
dominant one (and there are other, more subtle ways that I
analyze in the sections Visuals and
Space and Music and Space),
the film is immediately relieved of any dutiful regard for
fact. In its stead, a reading of the film yields the complex
relationship between signs and signifiers of not just a Southern
but a quintessentially American mythology. This project aims
to analyze how those myths work today.