Daily Archives: March 27, 2008

Depression (calicult)


I read an essay once that called Steinbeck an ‘apple pie radical’. Cute. But maybe he seems insuficiently proletarian because John’s working a populist-agrarian trope: dispossession from the land resonates at a heavy symbolic level– the first humans cast out, the Hebrew tribes in exodus from pharaoh, etc.


It also occurs to me that maybe we could use a working list of names to describe the period in which In Dubious Battle transpires:

the Great Depression [like the Great War? What does it mean to call a historical conjucture Great?]

the “age of the CIO” [from Michael Denning’s Cultural Front, foregrounding the lived experiences and relationships of workers, their alliances and allegiances]


“Fordist modernism” [another Denning-ism. as a heuristic, as a problematic, as a way of thinking about history and culture, it encourages us to link cultural production and consumption and the meanings that erupt from the practices these terms imply. The dialectic this linkage produces allows us to consider the signifying practices of everyday life together with what is more obviously ‘cultural’: literature, music, film, etc. ]


the interwar period [periodizing by wars reproduces the logic of mainstream historiography?]

hard times [which is appealingly colloquial, gritty and direct, yet carries with it the risks of romanticism]

the Jazz Age [do we automatically associate this term with F. Scott Fitzgerald, bootleg hootch, and The Cotton Club? What are the benefits/limits of emphasizing a leading form of a period’s cultural production? For me, this term resonates with a kind of midcentury urban negritude, the adaptation of largely rural “Negro” folkways to a highly stratified urban environment. Richard Wright is an obvious candidate here, but also, essentially, Claude McKay, whose West Indian origins, communist fellow-travelling and Harlem Renaissance ties make him a seminal figure of 20th century US fiction (see Home to Harlem, Banjo, Banana Bottom). We could mention Zora Neale Hurston too, especially her ethnographies of the South, Haiti, and Jamaica and the links they reveal between modernism/primitivism. Or Bessie Smith, Aime Cesaire, Oscar Micheaux, Prez, et al.]


Finally, here are some notes for a lecture on the Depression I once gave at Scotts Valley High. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it might be helpful in locating IDB in its cultural/historical context.


The American Dream and the Great Depression

Seeds of the Dream

The American Dream is as old as America, which is to say the United States, which, in the scheme of things, hasn’t been around that long. We might push back in time to the period prior to the United States when North America was a system of colonies under the French, British, Dutch, and Spanish to find the seed of this dream, its undeveloped beginnings. Going back to the opening of the western hemisphere to European colonialism means the 15th century– still not very long ago in terms of the span of human culture (which, some say, is about 100,000 years old). This period– the late 15th and early 16th centuries– is potentially important for our purposes because it witnessed two crucial events: the birth of a new economic system– capitalism— and, with it, the beginnings of modernity. That’s too big a task for today. Nor is there time to discuss a significant change within capitalism that is connected to the American Dream that occured roughly 200 years after the western hemisphere was colonized and has been called “the rise of the bourgeoisie.” We must set aside those questions for now, because our focus is fairly specific: the American Dream and its relationship to the Great Depression.

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Thinking Africa (contcult)

I’ve been reading up on Africa of late– Zimbabwe, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in particular. In the course of this study I came across an article by Anup Shah at GlobalIssues which addresses the issue of “Africa’s first World War”, the conflict in DRC:


The article goes as far back as Belgian colonization (1885)– when King Leopold claimed the area as his personal possesion– and covers the vicissitudes of national independence and Western neo-colonialism.  Of particular note is the reference to coltan, a very valuable mineral used in the production of cellphones. During the conflict in DRC various armed groups funded themselves by selling coltan and the money those sales generated went to the purchase of arms. It goes without saying that this telecommunications version of “blood diamonds” ended up in the United States. Your cellphone may contain some. So much for “free” minutes. The point here, at least in terms of HUM 415, is the nature of globalization: we have become increasingly bound up with one another even if we dismiss that fact as irrelevant. Yet there seems to be a paradox here: even as economic relations grow more complex and entangled, consumer technologies available in the First World work to seal us off from one another or limit our contact to a narrow range of acquaintances. If we’re intellectually curious enough, we know significant events are transpiring around the globe– we can witness them at one remove via internet, etc. At the same time ipods, cellphones and pc’s constitute a social landscape that is either purely individuated or stripped down to a micro-community. Even the nominal collectivity of the latter is strange as it is more often than not mediated through electronics. So, a contradiction: widening fragmentation in the midst of deepening imbrication.