On Friday we’ll begin a discussion on Raymond William’s etymological survey of the term “culture” and elaborate on the notion of “the contemporary.”
We’ll use these graphics for tomorrow’s class in order to understand some of the things Levander and Levine discuss in their introductory essay. Geographical space, at least in terms of its mapping, is an invention. The Americas, in this sense, were invented by those who “discovered” it. Yet there are other geographical imaginings of the hemisphere: Turtle Island, for example, as an indigenous “cognitive map” of the terrain of North America. The process whereby history is spatialized, Levander and Levine, suggest, is rife with occlusions, repressions, and appropriations. More on this on Friday.
Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 map of the world, the first, it is said, to use the term “America”:
Here’s a clip we’ll be screening on Friday, a conversation between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell which attributes the September 11, 2001 attacks to the moral failures of Americans. It’s important to note that this sort of interpretation has a long history, notably in the literary genre of the Jeremiad, a warning against “backsliding” which has persisted across centuries, often in secular form.
Geography used to be a required course in most highschools, but for decades now that discipline has languished on the fringes of recognition. As a result, geographical ignorance has spread alarmingly in the United States. For example, at the link below is a map quiz of the Middle East, a region the US has been pouring money, weapons and military personnel into since WWII and in which, for the last 7 years it has been fighting a “hot” war of occupation. How many nations can you identify?
Most of us grew up with the Mercator projection, a map developed in the 16th century which attempts to render true outline:
Last Spring in my Pop Culture class we talked a bit about Pop’s analgesic function, the way that even the blandest television, film, and music can act not so much as an opiate for the masses but as a shallow immersion into momentary oblivion. If opium and its derivatives swamp consciousness, provoking strange dreams, Pop-as-ibuprofen affords its audience the luxury of a minor diversion from the pressures of life without demanding a full engagement with the content at hand.
These observations might describe the 2 texts in question perfectly. Miami Ink, for example, begins as edutainment and ends as an infomercial as the boys in South Beach grow progressively richer, the “reality” aspect of the series attenuates to the thinnest of veneers, and the “personal legends” inscribed on the bodies of this week’s cohort of subjects becomes increasingly predictable. There will invariably be a memorial tattoo, a getting clean-from-dope tattoo, a going-to-the-sandbox tattoo, and a battle-with-cancer tattoo. Of the 6 regulars– Yoji, Ami, Darren, Nunez, Garver and Kat– only Garver manages to retain much interest as the kind of person with whom you might actually have a decent conversation. Kat’s too inclined to the California-style laconicism which substitutes “dude” and “awesome” for substantive words. Nunez is– let’s face it– about an inch deep. It seems likely he hasn’t read a book since high school. Darren Brass is a nice guy but unwilling to stir up much controversy, while Ami is so busy making bank he essentially revises the pricklier aspects of his personality out of existence. The interesting thing about Miami Ink is its unblinking devotion to a slightly sexed up version of the American Dream: entrepreneurialism, giving back to the community, and having some well-deserved fun at the end of the day. Unfortunately, the producers at TLC never considered that the actual craft of tattoo artistry might rate sustained attention. Instead, the audience is subjected to a few character-establishing bytes to set up the next ink job and then thrust into another graphics-heavy montage which manages to give only the most glancing familiarity with the series’ locale, Miami.
Sometimes a movie can be judged worthwhile only because it inspires you to re-write it afterwards in your imagination. Such is the case with 2012, a turgid, effects-loaded bit of millenarian porn which visualizes mass death on a scale never recorded in history. That this horrifying scenario of near-total extinction causes not a twinge in those watching it is a testament to CGI’s potential as psychological novocaine. When we see the freeways of LA twist like ribbons in the wind and glass office towers vomit their occupants into space it doesn’t mean much. When St. Peter’s Dome pops off like a bottlecap and rolls across a huge crowd of the terrified faithful we take only a second to register what that might actually mean by imagining a smear of human marmalade across the flagstones. People die at such a volume and rate that their deaths are incidental, crumbs dropped from the main course of seeing world famous landmarks such as Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer or the White House succumb to catastrophic forces. There is, on the other hand, an allegory here somewhere, even if Roland Emmerich appears to have cribbed it from When Worlds Collide. The question, of course, is how people will behave in a moment of unsurpassable crisis, the end of the world as we know it. But all of the carnage, all the volcano eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, ruptured gas lines, and flying plate glass are really only a preface to what should be the subject of the film: the aftermath of a disaster without ratio. The massive arks built to preserve the lives of a few hundred thousand human beings would be a promising setting for a film about humanity in the grip of adversity. Three arks of a few hundred thousand passengers each would provide three potential narratives of how people respond to the obliteration of not only their society but the very earth under their feet. Perhaps in one ark a cabal of elites would decide that resources were too scanty to share, and eject other passengers from the ship in an effort to ensure their own survival. In another ark a communistic experiment in absolute unity of purpose and self-sacrifice might prevail. The survivors on the last ark could conceivably strike land and begin to build a new society on the blasted shore. There are abundant dramatic possibilities here, and Emmerich, obsessed with blowing shit up, follows none of them.
The Fall semester’s almost here and I’m still chopping cotton on the third chapter of my dissertation. The last 3 months have been a long, fluid blur of neo-Lamarckianism, genetic psychology, romantic naturalism, and G. Stanley Hall’s impossibly baroque writing style. Here’s an example of the latter:
“Thus it is that the vast domains of experience of man and also of his far back animal progenitors, when obliterated from all records of the race, leave as their most permanent and last-to-be-effaced trace a predisposition of the imagination to reproduce their psychokinetic equivalents in forms thought to be original creations, just as the engrams of the great saurians and megatheria of the Trias age, inclined the mind of man, eons after they were extinct, to make fables of draconian monsters slain by culture-heroes who unified peoples and founded states, like St. George, Seigfried, Perseus, Beowulf, because man’s psyche and its organ, the brain, now inherit all the marvelous plasticity once shown best of all in the morphological plasticity of these most polymorphic lacertilian forms, or finds another illustration in our altitude psychoses and nightmares of hovering, in which we see reverberations in the soul of the piscine and pelagic life of our aquatic progenitors” (Adolescence 29).
Essentially he’s arguing that the psychic life of individuals bear the traces of long-obscured memories of a pre-historic human past in the form of myths and legends. This, in a nutshell, is the theory of recapitulation. Our instincts and proclivities were scripted millennia ago by the experiences of our forebears. So, for example, “doraphobia,” the fear of fur– and its opposite, “the love of fur” — can only be fully explained by “recourse to a time when association with animals was far closer than now, or perhaps when our remote ancestors were hairy.” I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone afraid of fur, but for Hall that’s not really the point. The basis of his entire system of genetic psychology is the supposed persistence of “phyletic vestiges” in the minds of modern people.
Here’s the man himself: