Earlier this month, I blogged about the polka-dot "design virus." In the June 2008 issue of Print Magazine, the highly decorated and impossibly prolific graphic designer and design critic Steven Heller (currently, he writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review, where he was art director for 30 years) introduces perhaps the most ineradicable of all design viruses, the cutoff-torso-spread-leg framing device that he calls the "A-Frame."
Digging deep into the archives of Miro Ilic, another highly decorated graphic designer with whom he has collaborated on excellent textbooks like "The Anatomy of Design" and "Icons of Graphic Design," Heller presents a few dozen A-Frames, from pulp crime and sleaze fiction covers to James Bond posters to "ham-fisted" magazine ads. Heller's point? Just this: The A-Frame "is the most frequently copied trope ever used." He seems to wish that this particular design virus would go away, since "on book covers and on film and theater posters, the leg has evolved very little."
I hate to quibble with the master, since I'm a fan of Heller's books. But this time he hasn't put his best leg forward. Even a cursory glance at the leg-scenarios on display in Heller's Print essay -- and at Print Magazine's A-Frame photoset at Flickr -- indicate that the A-Frame is forever evolving.
According to Heller, the earliest known uses of the A-Frame device were 19th-century engravings that showed spread-legged, Simon Legree–type slave masters lording over cowering victims. And in the earliest examples provided by Miro Ilic -- the covers of 1940s paperbacks -- we can see that the original instantiation of the A-Frame virus is still alive and... kicking. (Oh my God, I'm so funny.)
THE OBJECT BECOMES A SUBJECT
As we know from reading Hegel on the master/slave dialectic (or from watching Dirk Bogarde gain power over James Fox in Joseph Losey's 1963 movie, "The Servant"), the masterly subject is nothing without the enslaved object, which means that in a perverse way, the slave has power over the master. This applies to the A-Frame virus.
On the cover of pulp Western novels, we see spread-legged gunfighters confronting... other gunfighters. Who aren't cowering. We're still a fly on the wall, getting our kicks by peeping between someone's legs and seeing whatever it is that they're seeing. And what they're seeing is still objectified... only now the object isn't helpless, passive, objectified. The (male) object of our gaze can't be manipulated like a plaything, any more.
In fact, the object on these pulp western covers might just draw his gun faster than the owner of those spread legs... and kill him.
However, when the legs of a female subject frame a male object, the object reverts to abject objecthood (I should've finished my PHD thesis, I'd be sitting pretty now). The male object grovels under the gaze of the female subject; he's been a very bad boy. Is it time for his punishment now?
This particular trope of the A-Frame virus is still very much with us:
That's where James Bond comes in. Far from being a ham-fisted reprise of an age-old design stratagem, the Bond posters can be seen as a perverse marker of the triumph of women's liberation. Because the male object in these posters no longer sees the female subject as a dominatrix -- a master who is being hired by the slave, as it were. Now, the female subject is a fellow gunslinger, and -- like the gunslingers we saw on the pulp western novels -- she might end up being shot.
Naturally, the Bond posters want to have it both ways. The framing legs belong to a woman who is both gunslinger and dominatrix, mastering subject and object of desire. In Mike Myers' parody of James Bond, however, we see the male object become an object of desire.... to the female gunslinger. Talk about a Nietzschean revaluation of all values.
On the covers of comic books, we see every permutation of these A-Frame tropes. The silver-age comics shown below were created by members of the Postmodern generation, and here we see Postmoderns doing what they do so well... brooding over the fragments of pop culture and assembling referential, smart, tongue-in-cheek combines. (Note that not all of these covers are from the silver age of comics.)
And there's more! Now that we're all postmoderns, the A-Frame can be used in any of the above manners, or twisted into all sorts of new shapes, with new and twisted meanings about the subject-object dialectic. I'll leave you with a few examples.
Final joke: This virus still has legs!
Via Design Observer.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.