“Public Memory of Christopher Isherwood’s Novel, A Single Man: Communication Ethics, Social Differences, and Alterity in Media Portrayals of Homosexuality” | Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies
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“Public Memory of Christopher Isherwood’s Novel, A Single Man: Communication Ethics, Social Differences, and Alterity in Media Portrayals of Homosexuality”

September 12, 2014 - 3:00pm - 5:00pm
Speaker/Participants: 
Lester Olson

Although the popular film version of A Single Man suggests that it was based on the original novel with the same title by Christopher Isherwood in 1964, the 2009 film version almost a half century later does consequential symbolic violence to Isherwood’s achievement in the novel in ways that constitute a false and potentially harmful memory of it.  While I do not doubt that the film maker presented his work as an homage to Isherwood’s novel, such rhetorical recognition is what makes the film’s symbolic violence in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense appear legitimate, however insidious on inspection. Specifically, the film introduces invidious stereotypes of homosexual men that do not appear anywhere in the novel and that Isherwood was careful to avoid in his literary works, as exemplified by A Single Man. Arguably, it was precisely Isherwood’s endeavor to portray a life-affirming homosexuality that diminished the appeal of his novel for most popular audiences beyond a diverse gay readership, who have tended to recognize the novel as a brilliant literary achievement, as indeed it is. It could be argued, moreover, that the film detracts from Isherwood’s artistic legacy in a way that falsely represents his work and defames his literary sensibility. Yet the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has recognized the film with a national award. This essay draws on my personal experiences of the novel, a theatrical performance, and the film to consider the communication ethics of media representations, social differences, and alterity. In the process, the essay contemplates how the allure of aesthetics and freedom of artistic licence can collide with a responsible ethic of accurate representations of Isherwood’s novel and its portrayal of members of a minority culture.The Agora is a speaking series sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Communication.  Please contact Brent Malin at bmalin@pitt.edu if you have questions about these events.

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