The Foreign Literatures in America (FLA) project’s intellectual goals present a graphic design challenge marked by a delicate balance. We’re creating an archive that will demonstrate how the idea of Americanness has been shaped by actors beyond those traditionally labelled “American”; how do we create a logo and other graphic properties that reflect this focus on Americanness, without also presenting symbols of the United States (the U.S. flag, the shape of our portion of the continent, etc.) as visually—and thus thematically—dominant?
We found design inspiration in images such as Edward Brewer’s dark, estranging presentation of the Statue of Liberty on the front of a 1908 Life magazine, book covers like Kafka’s Amerika, and the iconic photographs of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. We researched estranged geographies: maps estranging the usual world placing of the United States by moving it from its usual central position or erasing it, showing the U.S. inscribed by bits of foreign textuality (e.g. by a grid of foreign flags or book covers). We thought about the Statue of Liberty in terms of its global history (images of the Statue being built in France or on the boat to the United States) and possible estrangement (perspectives aimed from behind the Statue and away from the U.S., or dividing the wrought-metal grid of the original “flame” into cells filled by flags of foreign nations). We even imagined a counterpart to Robert Buss’s “Dickens Dreaming” painting, with Uncle Sam or the Statue of Liberty dreaming of key figures from foreign literature (way too complex for a logo!).
Throughout our discussions of imagery representing our project, we struggled with ways to indicate focus without dominance, influence without appropriation. Imagery like the melting pot or Manifest-Destiny-era political cartoons, although demonstrating both planetarity and an American focus, was shot down because it carried obvious implications of an imperialist America dominating or improving the literatures of other countries. The current FLA image uses a global map with an only partially imagined America, but we’ll probably transition to using images of circulation or communication (to use Peter’s phrase, “capillary exchange”) for our final logo; imagery involving bloodlines, trade routes, or circulation all speak to global routes passing through American culture. The difficulty with such images is to imply circular movement rather than an omnidirectional power emanating from or draining into the United States; a logo with the effect of a two-headed arrow would help us show a pluralized and opened United States, while at the same time demonstrating the cultural influences flowing in.
A logo is admittedly a small thing, and only one item in a network of web design decisions that will frame how visitors interpret our project. At the same time, it’s the single most visible representative of the goals of our project; we’d be remiss if we didn’t port our close reading skills into our digital humanities design work. Follow us @FLAProject and @UMD_MITH to hear when the FLA’s official site is released and check out the results of our current design work!
Amanda Visconti is MITH Webmaster and a Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University of Maryland; she serves as both a member of the FLA’s founding executive editorial board and its digital liaison. Foreign Literatures in America is a project directed by MITH Faculty Fellow Peter Mallios. Read more about FLA in Dr. Mallios’ recent blog post.