Daily Archives: May 13, 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.