Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

West/Rest (303/415)

The discourse of “the West and the Rest” relies on the method of Othering. The construction of the myth of the West depends on its other, the Rest. If the Westerner is defined by attributes such as industriousness and fondness for liberty, for example, then the non-Westerner is necessarily lazy and slavish. 

Here is a quote from Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts:

“[T]he Other [is] a form of cultural projection of concepts. This projection of concepts constructs the identities of cultural subjects through a relationship of power in which the Other is the subjugated element. In claiming knowledge about [non-Westerners] what [the discourse of “the West and the Rest”] did was construct them as its own (Western) Other. Through describing purportedly [non-Western] characteristics (irrational, uncivilized, etc.) [“the West and the Rest”] provided a definition not of the real [non-Western] identity but of the Western identity in terms of the oppositions which structured its account. Hence, irrational Other presupposes rational Self. The construction of the Other in [West/Rest] discourse, then, is a matter of asserting self-identity, and the issue of the Western account of the [non-Western] Other is thereby rendered a question of power” (Edgar and Sedgwick 2002).

Primitive Accumulation

From Capital, volume 1 (1867)

 [P]rimitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work. Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in the defence of property…. In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part…. [T]he methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic.

Notes on Narrative

I’m still learning how to teach online. The last lecture I don’t consider particularly effective and I think that from now on I’m going to post multiple, very short lectures instead of trying to adhere to a longer format which probably only works face to face in real time.

Ideally you’ll be learning the human geography of the Crusades, the dates of events, the names of the major figures, big picture stuff, etc. in addition to thinking about historiography as a form of narrative-making that shapes contemporary understanding of the present and the past.

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New Project

The project of Humanities 415 Contemporary Culture is to develop a deeper understanding of the contemporary period by studying the relationship between expressive forms including literaturecinema, and visual culture– and history.

Our present is the outcome of a long process reaching back many thousands of years to the origins of human society.

While elements of the past may lose their practical or symbolic relevance and recede into obscurity, some of the forces that produced our world actively persist and determine the present.

Capitalism is easily the most significant socio-economic structure shaping modernity and thus our common situation today. Though a relatively recent development, the proliferation of capitalist social relations has remade the world and the people in it. Its origins– a tangled process of “primitive accumulation” including land enclosure, colonialism, and chattel slavery– continue to influence both the material conditions and the “cultural logic” of the present.

Reaching further back, the complex encounter between Islam and “the West” which began in the early Middle Ages continues to unfold. The USA and its allies, for example, have devoted decades to the bombardment, surveillance, and subversion of peoples and governments of the Middle East. Even now, the campaign to recapture Jerusalem in 1187 led by Yusuf ibn Ayyub (more commonly known as Saladin) endures as a potent symbol of resistance to Western imperialism in the Islamic world.

Our purpose in this course is to examine the roots of the present and investigate how the past is represented in contemporary culture. We will focus on two historical phenomena: the Haitian Revolution and the so-called Crusades. In addition, we will dip into post-apocalyptic fiction in order to explore the ways that our (partial, highly ideological) collective historical imagination informs our visions of the future.

To start we’ll generate a lexicon of keywords drawn from cultural theory and formal analysis.