Category Archives: California Culture

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.