Monthly Archives: May 2008

Unsaid2 (contcult)


Glancing back over the syllabus it’s clear enough we didn’t exhaust the possibilities– but who can really blame us with a topic as capacious as Contemporary Culture? For those with unslaked appetites, consider reading David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, now in its 25th or 26th printing. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more interesting or influential account of the period in which we live. Also, Robert Hughes’ entertaining and enlightening BBC series The Shock of the New, available on dvd and youtube, traces the development of modern art from Impressionism to Pop. Remember when we talked about visual representations of space, comparing medieval paintings to Picasso? I ripped that from him, as well as a few ideas from Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space

How about Globalization? Well that’s a long story. But here’s the jist: 

About 12,000 years ago small bands of hunter-gatherers arrived at what is now known as Tierra del Fuego, completing a journey first begun by African hominids a million years before. We can think of this as the pre-history of globalization. As some of these pioneers settled, their material lives were transformed. They began to create other methods of subsistence such as agriculture. As their nascent societies coalesced, labor was divided and political authority centralized. Artisans, bureaucrats, and priests developed their crafts. The symbolic domain of human experience in terms of art and language expanded. These were vital social technologies that would lead to increased exchange and interaction between different people. Roughly 9 or 10 millennia later writing was invented in Egypt, China and Mesopotamia. Around the same time the inhabitants of Southwest Asia conceived the wheel. The first age of Empire arrived, linking disparate tribes and linguistic groups across vast expanses of space. Of these premodern agglomerations one of the most impressive was the Chinese Empire (221 BCE) which lasted 1,700 years and embarked on an incredible succession of discoveries in the areas of philosophy, engineering, astronomy and chemistry. Yet it was the standardization of cart axles which probably produced over a longer term the profoundest effect on Chinese society: an increase in trade. The fabled Silk Road was one crucial conduit for trade among many, stretching over 5000 miles and linking China to Africa and Europe. With trade came economic and cultural exchange, migration and intermarriage– the dissemination of religious doctrine, new technologies and microbes. Urban centers grew. Regions were integrated. Cultural and economic activity intensified. With the advent of the caravel, the nations of Western Europe began a period of heightened commerce and exploration which eventually resulted in the opening of what were then known as the antipodes: a new world.

Miranda: O, brave new world, that has such people in’t!

Prospero: ‘Tis new to thee.

Without American gold and silver, Europe would likely have stagnated. And, as Jared Diamond phrases it, without guns, germs and steel none of that gold could have been taken from its indigenous ‘owners.’ By the late 18th century an intercontinental web of trade linked Europe, littoral Africa, parts of Asia, the Americas and much of Oceania. 

to be continued…



Unsaid1 (calicult)

“The days run away like wild horses over the hills,” wrote Chas. Bukowsi– and he was right. The end of the semester functions as a caesura, a gap between phonemes, the white space separating words. Which is one way of saying that our lives– my life– are syntagmatic: a sentence begun not long ago headed inexorably toward some final punctuation, whether a modest, dignified period or mysterious ellipses. It’s cheap philosophy to say so, but crossing from one event into the next sometimes forces us to a minor crisis of indecision:

I do not know which to prefer, 
The beauty of inflections 
Or the beauty of innuendoes, 
The blackbird whistling 
Or just after.

I am learning to appreciate silence uncluttered by the vain compulsion to always speak. As much as I love the cursive of voices, most especially my own, a moment is revealed when the only sounds audible are the words that have not been said. What did we not say to each other? What did we forget?

In California Culture we didn’t come to terms with the fact that the subject of our study is legend: a vision the world once had in a dream– ultima thule, the western isles, a terrestrial paradise promising repletion and knowledge, a myth that led Ulysses (according to Lord Alfred Tennyson) 

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

We can hear the echo of an ancient impulse in the rhetoric of American expansionism from Bishop Berkeley’s “Westward the course of Empire takes its way” to Horace Greeley’s admonition “Go West young man.”  Berkeley’s famous line comes from his poem America, or the Muse’s Refuge: A Prophecy written before either California or the United States existed. Emanuel Leutze, a German immigrant, borrowed the phrase to title a painting completed during the first year of the Civil War. The West, California included, thus served as what we might think of as a ‘third space’ or an ‘other scene’– a place where sectional antagonisms would be worked through, as in Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian.

The Calcutta Chromosome

If you’ve made it past the first few chapters of Amitav Ghosh’s novel then you know the world its characters inhabit is one fraught with the significance of events that lie just beyond the realm of observation and evidence. The primary theorist of these conspiracies is Murugan, a scholar of the history of malaria, whose study of Ronald Ross, the Nobel prize laureate credited with the discovery of that disease’s vehicle of transmission, the anopheles mosquito, has led him down into a labyrinth of mysticism and “counter-science”– the arcane methods of the final enhancement humankind has been seeking for centuries: immortality (or, as Murugan phrases it, “interpersonal transference”).

The Calcutta Chromosome’s narrative leaps across time and space: from a future New York where Antar, a computer specialist who telecommutes for the International Water Council, processing that organization’s Faustian plan to inventory the world, to India in the 1890s, when Ronald Ross apparently stumbles across the key to the malaria pathogen, guided unknowingly by an obscure sect of believers. The secret history of this achievement moves through the silence Phulboni speaks of at his lecture: “indeed the Word is to this silence what the shadow is to the foreshadowed, what the veil is to the eyes, what the mind is to truth, what language is to life” (29). A cryptic message, one that seems to unravel the foundations of western rationality and the assemblage of principles it deems indispensable under the rubric of “Humanism.” The upper-case W of “Word” is one clue here, as an English equivalent of the Attic Greek “Logos”– variously defined as rule, ratio and reason.

Because in one sense Humanism is a set of techniques for rendering the cosmos intelligible by discovering its mechanisms, a collection of methods for the gathering of “facts” and testing of hypotheses. Along these lines, Humanism as a concept precedes the term itself, going as far back as Kongfuzi (Confucius), the Ancient Greeks and the Carvarkas of 6th century BCE India– all of whom, broadly speaking, as materialists, held that true knowledge was to be found not in divine authority but in weighing the world.

The Calcutta Chromosome, then, posits the presence of another way of knowing, an epistemology founded not on empiricism or scientific realism, but on other, opaque foundations. Remember what Murugan tells Antar as they eat noodles in the Thai restaurant? “‘Not making sense is what it’s about– conventional sense, that is. Maybe this other team started with the idea that knowledge is self-contradictory; maybe they believed that to know something is to change it, therefore in knowing something, you’ve already changed what you think you know so you don’t really know it at all: you only know its history. Maybe they thought that knowledge couldn’t begin without acknowledging the impossibility of knowledge. See what I’m saying?” (105).

If we think back to our conversations on colonialism we might find that these matters are more than philosophical– they underwrite the colonial project itself. As a form of domination, colonialism relies not only on brute force and technological superiority, but on various forms of knowledge, from the truth-claims of Orientalism, which purports to know “the native” better than he knows himself, to anthropology, philology, and even the so-called pure sciences. Why was it so important to determine how malaria was transmitted and to develop, if possible, its cure? Could the burgeoning discourse of “tropical medicine” have something to do with the phase of history we now know as “High Imperialism”? As those who colonized Africa discovered, Europeans were susceptible to diseases to which indigenous Africans were largely immune. In a curious reversal of the 16th century CE colonization of the Americas when Aztecs and Incas succumbed to germ-laced conquistadores, European settlers in Africa watched as their family members and livestock sickened and died. Prophylaxis was crucial to the expansion of Western empires.

So we can read The Calcutta Chromosome as science fiction or as a “medical mystery”, but also, more germane to our purposes, as a post-colonial text, one that seeks to trouble Empire’s self-interested account of its history and its science with a secret history and counter-science– “local knowledge” we could call it– of the colonized. 

More Human Than Human (contcult)

Dreams of exceeding the limits of the human, whether in terms of lifespan or physical/intellectual abilities, have animated the imagination for millennia. Think back to Daedalus, who broke the shackles of gravity by building wings of wax and feathers. Though his son Icarus’s maiden voyage across the sky ended in death when he came too close to the sun, the desire to enhance or supersede human hardwiring continues to tantalize us. Notions of uploading the human mind onto a computer, for instance, have provoked ethicists, neuroscientists and fiction writers to speculate on the possibility of maintaining an integrated personal identity across the leap from the physical body to software. There are practical questions as well: do we freeze the brain, slice it, then scan those slices with high-resolution equipment? Or do we inject the subject with nanomachines which monitor each neuron in order to “learn” its input/output activity and then kill and replace all 100 billion of them? Gamma-ray holography? Biphoton intererometry? On the positive side, the uploaded individual would never grow old, sicken, and die. But what if there is more than one ‘copy’ of the upload? Which one owns your house or is married to your spouse?

Jeremy Rifkin has called our age the biotech century, an era when the human genome has been mapped and transgenic organisms are proliferating. Applications of genetic engineering include the creation of a geep, a goat-sheep chimera. In Shanghai, scientists have completed the fusion of human cells and rabbit eggs. In Minnesota, there are pigs with human blood. At Stanford University, researchers have created mice with human brain cells. All of this might sound like something from the Island of Dr. Moreau but the research is real enough, and it will inevitably open the door to more complicated applications on humans. How can we be so sure? Money:

“Over the last 15 years, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has granted more than 400 U.S. patents on higher animals, including pigs, cows and sheep, many genetically modified with human genes. Human-cow embryos have been patented, and in 2001, the University of Missouri was granted a patent on a cloning technique that does not rule out the creation of human embryos. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) now allows genes to be patented. Over 20,000 genes, 7,810 of them human genes, have been patented in the U.S.”


A Scanner Romantically (calicult)

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Mist [1818]

You’ll have noticed by now that as a means of illustrating Fred/Bob Arctor’s increasing cognitive deficit Philip K. Dick injects a number of passages of German into A Scanner Darkly. In keeping with the theme of blaue blume, these interpolations all come from a Romantic strain in German culture: Goethe’s Faust, a poem by Heinrich Heine and the libretto of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

What this might tell us is that underneath the chain-store banality and late capitalist detritus of Dick’s dystopian Orange County there is an impulse, fragile and ambitious, to transcend that situation. Romanticism‘s obsession with mysticism and heightened states of consciousness find a somewhat degraded counterpart in the drug-fuelled delirium of Scanner’s characters.  The user of narcotics is, in some sense, a wanderer on a quest for Truth or Knowledge and runs many of the same risks as Goethe’s Faust, whose all-consuming desire to know the world in its totality leads him to make a contract with Mephistopheles. As with every deal with the Devil it is only a matter of time until the seeker, over-reaching, is destroyed.  

Here are translations of the German passages:

pages 175-6 (from Goethe):

“You instruments, of course, can scorn and tease

With rollers, handles, cogs, and wheels:

I found the gate. you were to be the keys;

Although your webs are subtle, you cannot break

the seals.

Page 179:

Why, hollow skull, do you grin like a faun?

Save that your brain, like mine, once in dismay

Searched for light day, but foundered in the heavy


And, craving truth, went wretchedly astray.

Page 181:

I’m like the worm that burrows in the dust,

Who, as he makes of dust his meager meal,

Is crushed and buried by a wanderer’s heel.

Page 183:

Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast,

And one is striving to forsake its brother.

Unto the world in grossly loving zest,

With clinging tendrils, one adheres;

The other rises forcibly in quest

Of rarefied ancestral spheres.

Page 185:

Still this old dungeon, still a mole!

Cursed by this moldy walled-in hole

Where heaven’s lovely light must pass,

And lose its luster, through stained glass.

Confined with books, and every tome

Is gnawed by worms, covered in dust,

And on the walls….

Page 215 (from the Fidelio libretto):

How cold it is in this underground vault! 

This is only natural; it is so deep.

Page 261 (from Heine):

I, unfortunate Atlas! A whole world,

A monstrous world of sorrows I must carry.

I bear a weight unbearable; a burden 

That breaks the heart within me

As this is a short lyric poem the rest of it bears repeating:

Oh foolish heart, you have what you desired!

You would be happy, infinitely happy,

Or infinitely wretched, foolish heart.

And now– now you are wretched.