Notes Reach Towards: A Review of Show Bible

Reviewed by Allison Noelle Conner

For the past month I have been puzzling joyously over Martine Syms’ Show Bible. Throughout my reading experience I kept stopping to ask myself: what is this? How to describe its slippery forms? Is it a notebook? Sketches for a film piece? Production collage? Stills from an experimental video? A documentary? Research for a pilot?

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How to convey to you the shock of the fuchsia text? The unexpectedness? The color immediately defamiliarizes your positioning as a reader, stranding you in a late night TV scramble rather than the pages of a book.

It seems quite fitting then that this piece takes as its subject the nuanced intersections existing between televisual culture, blackness, class, historical memory, and representation. U.S. television is more than just a medium. It is more than an emotional cord. It is a highly contested stage wherein we continually reckon with our national traumas, narratives, and myths.

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Show Bible considers the sitcom, from its primordial beginnings in radio in the 1930s to its golden era in the 1970s to its multicultural focus in the 1980s and 1990s to the return to normative whiteness in the 2000s. This information isn’t conveyed linearly. There are pages where the text is not easily legible. Chunks of words and sentences are swallowed up in the unseeable gap of the spine. Others are cut off due to an off kilter placement. A sly dutch angle making you work harder. Many times I tried to read through the distortions, to gather meanings despite the gaps. In these ways, you become co-conspirator.

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For instance: what are the genealogies of the black hooded criminal? The welfare queen? The exceptional assimilationist? The colorblind American? What are the uses of blackness in televisual culture? How are these uses yoked to our convoluted past and violent denials?

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Much of Show Bible’s content can be characterized as found and/or repurposed materials: dogeared, torn and/or annotated pages from critical cultural studies and media history texts, TV intro stills from Girlfriends and Family Matters, scanned mixed media images, crumpled appendixes detailing charts of primetime schedules from various years, excerpted scripts and dialogue from Cheers and Color Adjustment, fragments of typed notes that attempt to distill the weight of all these signs and gestures.

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The text is the movement and signifying between the excerpts, sprouting between the pieces of research, speaking out through the crumbled white space. You think of the labor that went into assembling this book: the photocopying, the layering, the recalling. Is Show Bible a dance? No. The text cannot be captured so simply. The text is both what is seen and what is unseen. The text is the accumulation, the reader’s slow chew and digestion.

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One page, an excerpt from the text Comic Visions(1997), details the narrative architecture of the sitcom. In short, the sitcom abides by a cycle that upholds the status quo through the naming and correcting of ritual errors and mistakes. Unsurprisingly the status quo more often than not means patriarchal, heteronormative, white middle class preoccupations and assumptions. The sitcom reifies the family, submerging the fact that “The Family” must adhere to a very strict form and presentation. Anything outside the norm is deemed a threat and/or suspect.

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As defined by the terms of whiteness, the expressions of blackness must always appear fixed or knowable or othered. Thus in order for a black person to be “seen” as universally American they must be stripped of the very histories and struggles underwriting their blackness. Conversely, to be seen as “black” means to be a caricature, to be undesirable, to be expendable.

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Programs like The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Family Matters (seemingly) triumphantly thwart claims of black invisibility in the mainstream. We can no longer complain of not belonging for look at us on TV! Moreover, look at us on TV, achieving prosperity via the American Dream! Take a moment to consider what this visibility proves in the face of structural racism, police brutality, lack of resources, and continued oppression.

Show Bible wonders, must belonging necessitate erasure? What must be untold?

A close up of 190, the page detailing the sitcom’s unchanging narrative grammar. Half of it covers the two-page spread. A photocopy glitch: while the text on the left side remains in focus, the right side of the page looks as if it is in the midsts of turning, of flailing, of fainting off the page. You attempt to read across. The left side tempts you with its neat, upright words, but the right side is pure fury, words blurred and blearing, spiraling as if jumping off a ledge.

A close up of 190, the page detailing the sitcom’s unchanging narrative grammar. Half of it covers the two-page spread. A photocopy glitch: while the text on the left side remains in focus, the right side of the page looks as if it is in the midsts of turning, of flailing, of fainting off the page. You attempt to read across. The left side tempts you with its neat, upright words, but the right side is pure fury, words blurred and blearing, spiraling as if jumping off a ledge.

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Martine Syms. Show Bible. Dominica, 2015.

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