Tag Archives: Critical Methods

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.

Critical Methods: The Chronotope (contcult)

This is how the Soviet literary critic, M.M. Bakhtin, described the chronotope:

“We will give the name chronotope [literally, ‘time space’] to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature….we are borrowing it for literary criticism almost as a metaphor [almost but not entirely]. What counts for us is the fact that it expresses the inseparability of space and time [time as the fourth dimension of space].

“In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.”

Anthropologist James Clifford, picking up this thread for his own purposes, writes:

“The chronotope is a fictional setting where historically specific relations of power become visible and certain stories can ‘take place’ (the bourgeois salon in nineteenth-century social novels, the merchant ship in Conrad’s tales of adventure and empire).”

To understand these remarks we need to acknowledge that there can be neither space without time nor time without space. Consider time-space in a fashion similar to the way we think of the Sign. The Sign, as Belsey taught us, consists of a signifier (image-sound) and a signified (concept) in a manner like the front and back of a sheet of paper; they cannot be split apart.

Now push it further: conceive of space not as abstract, as in geometry, nor as dead and endless as in the expanse of the universe. Space, in the sense we will be using that term, is social; it is produced by human activity. The space of the dance floor, for instance, is created by the rhythmic motion of the dancers’ bodies. The road as a space is constructed by the movement of vehicles.

But we have to tweak Bakhtin’s definition of the chronotope just a bit more: the chronotope, for our purposes, will be a time-space that symbolizes, embodies or stands in for the power relations which define the contemporary period– that is, the very moment we are studying in this course.

During class we discussed chronotopes in terms of “zones”: the border, the green zone (gated community), the strip mall, the detention center. Regarding the first of these we said that if the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall are chronotopes for the Ancient and Cold War worlds respectively, then the border chronotope of our location in history is El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, the Sunni/Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, Israel/Palestine. All three border zones are militarized. The first, EP/CJ, seems to possess an economic and cultural function while the second, the walls dividing the communities of Iraq’s capital, is represented as serving the purpose of separating what we are told are “warring factions.” In each of these cases the flow of people is limited, controlled and channeled. Remember what we said? One primary characteristic of the contemporary world is that even as capital has been liberated to course through the major nodes of a globalized economy demographic movement has increasingly been constrained. Legal efforts by States to regulate migration have even led to the creation of a new class, what the French call “sans papiers” and some in the US deem “illegals”.

It’s crucial that we imagine these chronotopes as alive rather than as inert. What is the space-time of border-crossing or border-keeping? What does it look like? How does it smell? To that end, experiment with formulating a list of contemporary chronotopes and their defining features. We’ll discuss what you’ve come up with in class.

Soundtracking (calicult)

Critical Methods: Soundtracking

To our critical toolkit we can add another method, soundtracking. Let’s think of the latter part of that term, tracking, not only as background music or the noises generated by human activity, the natural world and the movement of machinery but as the activity of tracking, as in the way a hunter might track her quarry. For the period of the 1930s, then, soundtracking becomes the critical method of following the development of social sounds: from Delta Blues and lefty folk to the pop of tear gas canisters fired at strikers, the thrum of turbines generating electricity, the scratch of chaff blown across the dustbowl wasteland or the tintinnabulations of the city. The trail of California—and more generally, American—culture provides us with clues about how we arrived at the future that is our present.

A secondary valence of ‘tracking’ might relate to the idea of a track as the determined trajectory of cultural practices and social changes. Think of railcars clacking along: they move through time and across space, but barring derailment there’s very little leeway. This sense of the word brings us to a confrontation with historical necessity. In a way, history isn’t what happened; it’s what had to have happened in order for us to be here to talk about it.

This weekend, research some of the sounds of the Depression on the internet. Youtube might be useful, particularly in terms of popular music of the period. In class I mentioned Woody Guthrie, Son House and Robert Johnson but there is a cacophony of notes, noises and voices to consider: Swing, Dixieland, James Cagney’s gangster snarl, the syncopated beat of apples raining into a wooden bin.