Category Archives: California Culture

Commiefornia (415)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Being a communist would no longer be a fireable offense for California government employees under a bill passed Monday by the state Assembly.

Lawmakers narrowly approved the bill to repeal part of a law enacted during the Red Scare of the 1940s and ’50s when fear that communists were trying to infiltrate and overthrow the U.S. government was rampant. The bill now goes to the Senate.

It would eliminate part of the law that allows public employees to be fired for being a member of the Communist Party.

Employees could still be fired for being members of organizations they know advocate for overthrowing the government by force or violence.

The bill updates an outdated provision in state law, said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, the San Francisco Bay Area Democrat who authored the measure.

Some Assembly Republicans said the Cold War-era law should not be changed.

Assemblyman Randy Voepel, a Southern California Republican who fought in the Vietnam War, said communists in North Korea and China are “still a threat.”

“This bill is blatantly offensive to all Californians,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen, a Republican who represents a coastal district in Southern California. “Communism stands for everything that the United States stands against.”

California Unter Alles

Above: first wave punk rockers Dead Kennedys anti-anthem “California Über Alles“.

Below: link to an interesting article at SFBay Guardian on how California became the first US failed state– The Lesson of California–as well as another piece on the effects of neo-classical economics (i.e. neoliberalism) on the state and national economy, Killing the Dream.

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.

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

dawn

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):

LEONORA 
How cold it is in this underground vault! 

ROCCO 
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.

Blaue Blume (calicult)

Blaue blume means “blue flower,” an important symbol within German Romanticism representing a hunger for the infinite, sexual and spiritual desire, and a surplus of emotion. The philosopher Novalis writes of the blue flower in his unfinished work Heinrich von Ofterdingen. From the introduction:

The old people were already asleep; the clock was beating its monotonous tick on the wall; the wind blustered over the rattling windows; by turns, the chamber was lighted by the sheen of the moon. The young man lay restless in his bed; and thought of the stranger and his stories. “Not the treasures is it,” said he to himself, “that have awakened in me so unspeakable a desire; far from me is all covetousness; but the Blue Flower is what I long to behold. It lies incessantly in my heart, and I can think and fancy of nothing else. Never did I feel so before: it is as if, till now, I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world; for in the world I used to live in, who troubled himself about flowers? Such wild passion for a Flower was never heard of there. But whence could that stranger have come? None of us ever saw such a man; yet I know not how I alone was so caught with his discourse: the rest heard the very same, yet none seems to mind it. And then that I cannot even speak of my strange condition! I feel such rapturous contentment; and only then when I have not the Flower rightly before my eyes, does so deep, heartfelt an eagerness come over me; these things no one will or can believe.

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This is a Palimpsest (calicult)

An original work by Denis Brown.

Note the layering of textures and texts. In the past, a palimpsest was created when an old vellum was erased and recycled and a new text was placed on top of it. Inevitably some of the prior writing ghosted through to the surface. When we transpose this concept onto physical terrain such as the Presidio we see that the traces of the past are never completely obliterated. They bleed through the new exterior here and there, complicating and enriching our understanding of that space. As a critical method, the palimpsest requires not only that we note this phenomenon but that we then develop some argument about the meaning of this juxtaposition. By now the history of the Presidio is very familiar to us. What claims can we make about the strata of historical moments piled upon that site?

Birdmen (calicult)

California Valley Quail

Fantastic presentation today and a great discussion afterwards. I was thinking about our rudimentary trope-system and some of the suggestions made. Janelle mentioned Nellie Furtado’s song “I’m Like a Bird”. Though she might better serve our purposes were she Californian rather than Canadian, the lyrics of that song, with their reference to flight and escape, tap into a key value of California Culture, one that Robert Johnson’s Sweet Home Chicago hits upon as well: the desire to move unimpeded through space, bird-like, whether toward the promised land of California dreams; Gold Mountain; orange groves heavy with ripening fruit; a “virgin” territory of material wealth and possibility; or Hollywood,  the center of image-production, the proving ground for luck and talent.

To this thickening stew Anthony tossed in an unexpected ingredient, the Blue Angels, stationed at Miramar, whose speed and thrust exceed even the fastest of birds. I’m not sure if those navy aviators (“Don’t ever call them pilots,” my dad used to instruct me. “In the Navy pilots drive ships.”) refer to themselves or their craft as ‘birds’ or some variant, but it is interesting to note that one of the main hazards confronting fixed-wing aircraft is the dreaded “bird strike”, perhaps the ultimate (and most destructive) meeting between bird and man.

In troping, ALL of this is fair game. The key is to construct a coherent system with intelligible links.

What then have we got? The fabled Birdman of Alcatraz– a sinner-saint known for his terrible crime and his kindness to animals– and his Catholic correlate, St. Francis– church father, philosopher and San Francisco namesake– whose statuary is forever flecked with pigeon droppings. Complicate that pairing with the anthropomorphic Donald Duck, in some sense a monstrous Bird Man with his tortured mode of speech, his sailor suit (sans pants) and his ridiculous rages.

The down-and-outer huddled on the curb buzzed on Thunderbird, taking flight of a different kind.

Or the Maltese Falcon, as Maria rightly pointed out one of the most significant birds we’ve yet encountered: a bird-man artifact, a creation of human hands, a sign of tribute to the king, the central character of Hammet’s novel.

How about the state bird, the California Valley Quail? Will this symbol of California fauna fit into our system of tropes?

Look where we’ve managed to travel in playing this critical game: the Hispano-Catholic origins of California culture, the military- and prison-industrial complexes of the 20th century, the Depression Era, San Francisco as a space of modernity, the innocent yet disturbing fantasy-images inscribed on the minds of children by one of Hollywood’s titans, Walt Disney. In this apparently innocuous exercise we’ve touched upon the chronic restlessness that seems to animate the California Dream, forms of social control, core institutions such as the military and the church, and mass society. Not bad.

Mixed Pot (calicult)

We got off to something of a start on Wednesday in our discussion of two powerful metaphors for American society, the melting pot and the salad/mosaic. The latter of these is, as I’ve already said, an expression of multiculturalism, with its symbiotically connected principles of tolerance and diversity. Slavoj Zizek has written on the “ideology of tolerance” in an essay (pdf) that rewards the effort it requires to read.

An html version of Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play “The Melting Pot” which popularized that term at a time of large-scale immigration to the United States. Interestingly the melting pot metaphor was used as early as the late 18th century and notably by Ralph Waldo Emerson, though in his version the US was a “smelting pot.”

A sample:

VERA

So your music finds inspiration in America?

DAVID

Yes—in the seething of the Crucible.

VERA

The Crucible? I don’t understand!

DAVID

Not understand! You, the Spirit of the Settlement!

[He rises and crosses to her and leans over the table, facing her.]

Not understand that America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand

[Graphically illustrating it on the table]

in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to—these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.

MENDEL

I should have thought the American was made already—eighty millions of him.

DAVID

Eighty millions!

[He smiles toward Vera in good-humoured derision.]

Eighty millions! Over a continent! Why, that cockleshell of a Britain has forty millions! No, uncle, the real American has not yet arrived. He is only in the Crucible, I tell you—he will be the fusion of all races, perhaps the coming superman. Ah, what a glorious Finale for my symphony—if I can only write it.

Note the absence of African-, Native- and Asian-Americans.

Here’s something vaguely disturbing: a diversity consulting firm whose “services” are characterized as “a smart investment that will pay long-term dividends.” Are the varieties of human culture something like a range of commodity brands? In a consumer economy dominated by the value of “difference” (“Think different” Apple commands us, thus begging the question of whether this universal will to difference is a self-devouring concept)– a quality that invariably seems to reside on the surface of things (the absolute importance of packaging to product differentiation)– is it possible that the logic of the market has come to completely structure our understanding of cultural distinction?

The issues these two metaphors evoke or attempt to address are manifold and stupendously complex: identity, the nation, culture, capitalism, classical liberalism, nativism, immigration, social hierarchy, democracy, pluralism, etc. It may help, however, to note that at any given moment in American history certain ideas regarding the cultural and/or racial identity of the nation have predominated. In the late 19th century racial difference was held to be purely biological, a “fact” that meant that some people were simply unsuited to full citizenship. This belief began to erode prior to WWI when racial biologism lost some of explanatory power to the notion of ethnicity. Ethnics were held to be distinct by virtue of their different cultural origins rather than physiology. Germans, Italians, et al (always “white ethnics”) were destined to lose their specificity through one of two social processes (or, alternately, some combination of them): assimilation– in which ethnic Europeans became like the white (Anglo-Saxon) majority– or acculturation– in which the WHOLE of American society, including Bostonian bluebloods, were changed by the influx of immigrants. With the rise of a contentious working-class activism, the advent of WWI and an ensuing paranoia about subversive elements undermining the US political body, those related processes– acculturation/assimlation gave way to a much more aggressive and authoritarian model of “Americanization.” The notion that immigrants would become citizens while retaining the defining features of their homeland culture was held to be naive and possibly dangerous. In fact, many immigrants were seen as threatening enough to deport, usually under the rubric of criminal syndicalism, national security or, as with the Palmer Raids, for merely having the “wrong” political views: anarchism, communism and socialism.

The story, of course, doesn’t end there; in class we’ll make an effort to sketch out this history and then move deeper into Gangster.