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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Two Cradle Theory


I'm making my students respond to their readings by keeping a blog, so I figured I'd practice what I preach and respond to some of the readings for one of my graduate seminars, called "Africans in the Americas". This one applies to the "Two Cradle Theory," as proposed by Cheikh Anta Diop. In a nutshell, he proposes that environmental climates and the scarcity of resources in various regions gave rise to certain cultural valuations and tendencies, resulting in two "cradles" for civilization--the Northern/European Cradle (originated by the Greeks) and the Southern Cradle (originated by the Egyptians, whom he believes were racially African rather than a hybridized, vaguely Mediterranean race).   

While I’m largely ignorant of the field of anthropology and the academic discourses that predominated at the time Cheikh Anta Diop wrote his influential “Two Cradle Theory,” I can presume that it had a watershed impact on certain assumptions about the rise of a certain vision of civilization (and, indeed, what the term meant). Such a theory had to be appropriately revolutionary if it were to overcome centuries of methodological assumptions muddied by prejudice.
            His theory has some merits, but it also suffers from another kind of essentialism regarding what it means for a culture to be “civilized.” Diop posits a geographical account of the rise and trajectory of certain cultural values and discourses that makes sense due to the relative scarcity or abundance of resources, but the theory also strikes me as simplistic. It divides human creative and social energies into two social bodies, which doesn’t strike me as entirely honest. I suppose I could use a Western narrative and talk about Freud and his "Civilization and Its Discontents," but I'm not sure if that would be appropriate evidence. Suffice it to say that I agree with his thesis that human societies, driven by the insatiable imperatives of biology, have always had complex motives for communal organization. That said, his theory does strike a cord with me: I’ve long thought that patriarchy and the nature-dominating values of Eurocentric modes of life, evident in everything to Enlightenment rationality to the drive for warfare, was perhaps due in some part to chiller, harsher climes. Aggression, harsh rule, notions of collectivity coupled with rampant xenophobia, all seem like plausible emotional responses to a perpetually threatened existence. Relative abundance, giving rise to Egypt’s “metaphysical materialism” (231) based on theological beneficence, would likewise seem to correspond with a relatively more peaceful existence, allowing for the cultivation of egalitarianism. 
            This brings me back to what Diop seems to mean by “civilization,” however. I think he’s using the same kind of Eurocentric logic he tacitly disavows when he aligns it with the development of “mathematics, astronomy, the calendar, sciences in general, arts, religion, agriculture, social organization, medicine, writing, technique, [and] architecture” (234). He therefore uses European epistemological concepts to define what “culture/civilization” means, and also associates “truly” civilized cultures (African cultures) with collectivism, optimism and freedom from arbitrary or gender-based impositions. The Greek cultures, by contrast, are “barely fit for civilization” because they are “steeped in barbarism” because of their penchant for aggressive domination and strict hierarchical rule (234). My point is that the definition of what it means to be civilized is an argument in itself, which needs, at the very least, to be made clear in his own theorizing. Presumably, this latter-day view of “civilization” applies more to his political leanings and what kind of values he privileges, which should be made a tad more transparent.
            I suppose, if we were to accept this theory, a natural penchant for the southern-cradle mode of culture can be located in those peoples of African descent. I’m not sure if this kind of narrative is genetic essentialism or not, however, or if he’s arguing that inherited cultural traditions give Africans an innate ability “to restore the continuity of his national historic past” should they attempt to rescue it from Eurocentric domination (235). In this sense, the Maroon rebellions center on rescuing an ancient vision of themselves as progenitors of epistemology, something that may be reflected in the relatively communal organization that many of the Maroon societies operated upon.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Alaska


It was good to be home. And I really didn’t want to leave.

Alaska in winter has an ambience that induces the right mixture of sleepiness and calm. Doubtless, the darkness lends it this impression, but there seems a general ocular dimness in air and in biology alike—a hazy, dreamy contentedness. Of course, soporific auras don’t occur unless you’re safely inside, away from the below-zero temps. The landscape, minus periods where Chinook winds turn every street into ice skating rinks and thus energizes the air with howling franticness, seems the living vision of every Chirstmasy clichĂ©, the collective imaginative vapors of every Dickensonian holiday narrative deliverer. There’s a reason the town of North Pole, AK, economically revolves around tourists looking for that authentic Yuletide experience.

Anyway, I’ll suspend my tendency to show off with overly poetic sentences and just tell you all what happened.

The first week, I stayed in Anchorage and mostly hung out with my friends Theo, Julie and Mike. I alternately crashed on each one of their couches and at my mother’s place in South Anchorage. The tail-end of the craziest Chinook storms I’d ever seen hit the state soon after I arrived, and it was probably the most damning proof of global warming I’ve witnessed. Theo and Julie and I went on a short run on the Service High trails and the wind was strong enough to literally recline on. Their tarp blew out of their SUV, sucked past everything, blowing amidst snowdrifts to where it finally rested on a fence about a half-mile away. We also went ice-skating on the frozen Westchester Lagoon, and this was probably my first genuine ice-skating attempt since I was eleven. I think the only reason I fell once was because I had been roller-skating with my friend Brian Hudson all summer, which probably improved my sense of balance.

After seeing my mother and other friends, I hitched a ride down to Kenai to visit my dad with my friend Mike, who was meeting up with his fiancĂ©e’s family. This was most likely the last time I would spend in my childhood home, since the house is probably going to be sold next summer. Appropriately, I read a theoretical work by Gaston Bachelard called the “Poetics of Space,” along with several other works.  Reading this book enabled me to “live” the theory, as it were, since it emphasized the memory/spatiality connection as a product of everyday phenomenological awareness. I swear, I thought I was the only person who thought about tight corners and other areas as protective carapaces or physical manifestations of the innate desire for shelter, which facilitate memory almost better than any smell.

Anyway, I went out to several restaurants, gobbled all the Alaskan foods I’ve missed, soaked up the cold and effectively recharged, Mr. Freeze style, after living in the dead center of Satan’s sweaty armpit, otherwise known as Norman. I reconnected with old high school friends that I never should have gotten out of contact with, and will be sure to hang out with again when I come back this summer.

When I came back to Anchorage, there was a medical scare with someone very close to me (won’t mention who), which involved EMTs, ambulances and hospitals and other very scary medicinal things that I’d obviously like to forget. Hanging out with Theo, Julie, Mike and Heather enabled me to forget about it all, which I can never repay them for.

I came back with a little taste of home too: moose meat! It’s honestly among the leanest, healthiest meat in the world. My dad and a few buddies bagged a few moose on the Yukon during their annual trip up there, and were kind enough to send me home with some. I’ll need it to churn through this coming semester. 

Also, my cat is very happy I'm back: 





Monday, December 19, 2011

The Trip Home and Bizarre Alaskan Weather



It’s weird how locales seem to change along with the traveling individual and their experiences. You’ve doubtless all heard the expression, “You’ve taken X (earthquakes, rain, clouds, etc) with you” when you travelled to a new place and found that something unforeseen and unexpected to the residents happens soon after your own arrival. These experiences, however, aren’t new to you, and people seem amazed at your jaded placidity.

When I travelled to Oklahoma last year, a spate of earthquakes hit the state. This wasn’t new to me, but it was to everyone else there. The generally apocalyptic weather that this state effortlessly summons seems preternatural and somehow unfair. Like there’s some metaphysical agenda against this pancake land, mocking the attempts of these walking bags of blood and bone to dominate nature by turning their finest architectural achievements into junkyard scraps. It actually helped me theorize the abundant penchant for religiosity in the weather-stricken Bible Belt. Theological abstractions must be conjured in order to persevere, and this particular streak also inserts itself into the ubiquitous football discourse (“Boomer Sooner” actually means “Go God/Jesus/BBQ/ Toby Keith!”).

Anyway. I arrived back in Alaska and it seemed to turn into Oklahoma. It was unseasonably warm, with 80 mph wind gusts that I have literally never seen here. Last week, a friend of a friend told him he saw lightning. Yes. Lightning during an Alaskan snowstorm in December. A truly freak occurrence, even during the summer, let alone dead winter.

I went running in the windy, icy street outside my mother's place yesterday, and felt like I needed Yeti blood just to keep going.


One last note. I seem to have a frustrating knack for meeting incredible, beautiful, intelligent women on flights from one random city I’ll never even be close to and another equally distant from my usual location. This particular knack seems, at once, bittersweet, somewhat cool for its rarity and storybookishness, and also painfully sadistic (lol). I once had a flight from Phoenix to Seattle with someone I connected with on every single level. Mind sparks flew, and we ended up having a two-hour layover after the flight and hung out at the airport. Alas, it ended with email exchanges and all, but we ended up flying two opposite directions and eventually lost touch. This scenario happened again on this most recent flight, and makes me wonder why I can make ephemeral encounters with beautiful, intelligent, professional women of my age in metal tubes five miles above the surface of the earth, but rarely when I’m firmly attached to a small segment of soil I happen to inhabit for long periods of time. Yargh. 

Anyway, it also gives me some reason to be optimistic after feeling particularly nauseous about the whole romantic thing lately.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Jackassishness"



Lo and behold, I found myself enjoying the latest iteration of what passed as entertainment for a high school and college-aged Derek: Jackass 3D.

The prevailing discourse regarding maturity would have me be ashamed of this indulgence at the age of twenty-eight. It would have me immediately point up my nose at such nonsense and pull out Faulkner in order to get my responsible intellectual vitamins. But something has been yearning in me recently to experience youthful, mindless glory, an unashamed revelry in pain for no reason juxtaposed with the juvenile exploitation of bodily functions.

I don’t know if anyone else feels this way, but there’s something symbolically wonderful about Jackass and their stunts. Something boldly anarchic and charged with contemporary frustration. Most would brand me a postmodernist babbler who would also likely deem a piece of contorted metal on stand “art” if I dared to allow Jackass in this category …but I think there are some unrecognized merits in their stunts. Call me crazy.

Although it feels slightly hyper-masculine, in the sense that it’s really just a bunch of skateboarders reenacting the same premise as Fight Club in a more overt and less narratively cohesive sense, I also feel the stunts can be stripped of such gendered interpretations by looking at the motivations behind them. Sure, Jackass 3D does not contain the same rebellious twenty-somethings trying to eliminate boredom, but it does harken back to those initial intentions. Boredom is powerful stuff. It makes one uncomfortably aware of their goals, life intentions, or inherent motivations. And when one doesn’t have a responsible or coherent answer, we’re left with a gripping nausea.

A nausea which makes us want to ride grocery carts over ramps and into nearby pools. A sickness which makes us want to take someone’s fast food bag out of their hand in the drive-thru and spike it on the ground in front of them while wearing a football helmet. The ideological undercurrents informing these kinds of stunts—commercialism/materialism generates absurdity or ubiquitous mendacity—may not be articulated by these guys, but I have a feeling it’s there in essence.

Qualifier: On occasion.

Now…this is not Sartrean existentialism. I’m not saying it has high artistic merits or credibility But it is, on occasion (and when they aren’t over-compensating by attempting to display how manly they are through pain-endurance) symbolically powerful stuff.

Call it the logic, or illogic, of “Jackassishness.” It’s the new way of saying something “just ain’t right, so I’m gonna go hurt myself to pass the time. Cause at least then I’ll feel something.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Musings



I haven’t blogged in a while due to grad school preoccupations. But I figured I would productively procrastinate once again and write, public journal style to broadcast my thoughts, for others and for myself, about interests and happenings.

Of course, most “happenings” happen in my mind nowadays. That’s a euphemistic way of saying I’m too busy to have a social life.

A preoccupation of mine recently has been the psychological root of ideological formations. I mean ideology in the post-Marxist sense, the wide social, conceptual patterns of thought that make up what Foucault calls a discursive formation. The drive to knowledge at the heart of various contemporary institutions and articulated in individual values, apparent everywhere from journals to the voiced preoccupations of undergrads in my own composition classroom, feeling compelled to major in something that will win them money (tacitly: happiness). Values pronounced in the green ink of dollar bills, hovering silently over transactions and affirmations of company loyalty.

The root is psychological, I think, because, if happiness is satisfaction or contentment, then the compulsion to strive for knowledge is behavioral. I guess what I’m talking about is a kind of psychology unmoored from the purely empirical domain—a philosophical psychology—which accounts for visible, manifested patterns or tendencies of a given populace, regurgitating the values of a contemporary episteme, without reliance on the purely testable, measurable. The way through which it is thought, in a certain sense, that the normative “we” can attain meaning or assuage feelings of hopelessness, despair, futility. Religiosity once fulfilled this function, but now accounts for little. Empirical questing is the new religion.

At the root of this is the compelling fear of the human animal, perhaps present in boredom. Erich Fromm and Heidegger have the same kind of emphasis here that I do, in that they understand boredom as an intolerable cessation of temporal progress and thus opens the space for aporia in contemplation—a kind of contemplative realization of one’s own striving and the teleological assumptions society articulates through it, alleviated, in some regard by distraction from these kinds of uncomfortable thought-swamps.

Perhaps this is why I have turned to ontology and am considering gender constructs. It seems to me that the heroic quest to self-fulfillment is inculcated through our physiological assumptions about gender roles. What, though? How to answer this question? What is the at the root of the strive for power which eliminates the need to contemplate boredom and open the dialogue of nihilism? And how does this reveal itself in the late 19th/20th C. cultural imaginary?

I’m on the verge of some kind of theoretical articulation for this project, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t want to sound like Ernest Becker in his Denial of Death….but, then again, maybe I do? In a gendered sense?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

My Furry Prisoner (aka Animal Companion)

I have a cat named Blaze. I never thought I would own a cat—call me a sucker for the obdurate loyalty of the canine, which trumps almost any ephemeral human connection—yet here I am, and I love the little guy.


He’s a zestful fellow who, in his short year-length span on earth, has managed to see half of North America, albeit flashing by through the window of a car. An ex-girlfriend, who was driving with me from Alaska at the time, owned him. When that didn’t work out, he ended up mine. And he’s a great companion for the secluded scholarly sort, the kind of creature that adores privacy and a good nap. If dogs are perpetually extroverted, the cat is introverted, and scrupulous and practical regarding his selection of companions.  The gateway to a kitty’s heart isn’t a free-for-all. One has to earn it.

Anyway, I’m in a quandary. Blaze used to be an outdoor cat. Due to a pretty bad injury resulting in several teeth marks and a large open wound on his leg from an angry neighborhood dog, I decided to wean him off the great outdoors and keep him inside from here on out. Indoor cats live longer and are less expensive to keep around than an adventurous Zorro-cat seeking nightly duels with other local felines.  Budgets matter when you make 12k a year as a graduate teaching assistant.

However, I’ve since noticed a tad bit of melancholy creeping in. While before he was a blur of furry excitement, he’s become a tad mellower, collapsing lazily on the carpet, watching to see when I’ll go to the kitchen and thus be near enough to his food to beg in the form of inquisitive meows. I’ve bought him several electronic and non-elextronic toys that spin and bounce and squeek and even mimic the movements of actual prey, but he gets bored of them quicker than it took for me to spend my hard-earned money on them. I’ve found him clawing at the posters on my wall, possibly thinking they are avenues for escape.

I catch him gazing longingly to the outdoor awesomefest he once had a daily dose of. A squirrel occasionally comes onto my porch in search of bird seed, and Blaze makes his typical predatory sounds and lion-like movements, but quickly gets discouraged when he realizes his efforts will always be deterred by a thick pane of glass.

It would be different if he had never experienced the outside world. One doesn’t miss what one doesn’t know. But he has, and I cannot avoid the icky feeling that I get when he pines for his outdoor prey-fest…the feeling like I’m a prison guard, keeping my furry inmate from living the life he was meant to.

On the other hand, I also get more icky feelings at the thought of letting him out to kill helpless birds and rodents and whatnot. This is what a cat’s meant to do, yes, but I feel like somehow harnessing the beast within is the most humane approach. Let’s face it: they’re adorable little Ted Bundys, people. I saw a documentary once where some documentarians filmed neighborhood cats National Geographic style. Despite the fact that most of them had full stomachs, they still proceeded to rip the heads off of a few dozen baby chicks the crew had placed in certain locations.

I don’t know what to do. I want him to be happy, and I guess he’d be happier if he weren’t dead and had a nice meal and a warm bed, right?  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hyperreality


Recently I witnessed an apartment complex burn down across the street from my own. The first thing I remember thinking was that it looked like the set from a movie. If you’re so cocooned in cinematic tragedy, to the point where you forget what real blood or real auto accidents or real flames look, feel and smell like, the real thing is likely to shock you—not for the sheer sensory immediacy of the experience, but the fact that this “real” event cannot potentially be divorced from the visual panopoly of “fictional” experience streaming out of our glass screens every second.  

Hello, Baudrillard.

I don’t have to tell most people reading this blog that the news is probably just as much entertainment as reality. News itself is gathered and read off Teleprompters by handsome or pretty talking heads, and clips of the event are possibly intercut with them, albeit sanitized for general audiences.

The “news” itself is fiction—you need to look elsewhere to find the actual images of the brutal consequences. If you hear about an accidental stealth bombing of a noncombatant’s building in Afghanistan and hear the reporter rattle off numbers—4 children, 5 adults killed—you’re left to imagine the scenario (perhaps a dim flash of nine whole bodies lying in circular fashion in the midst of a crumbled building, charred and battered but still somewhat photogeneic) deem the military’s actions as a tragic but unavoidable consequence of war, and move happily on with your day. But if you go to an a obscure site that publishes all the stuff CNN won’t display on its screens and see the mutilated body parts and the horrible screaming of the gathered relatives, maybe you’re not so ready to let Uncle Sam off the hook.

Perhaps this explains the dumbfounded look of some of the gathered pedestrians who watched with me as the building burned down. Some tweeted on their smartphones, some took pictures, others just stared and gaped. A few uncomfortably chuckled and, believe it or not, asked others “if there were any dead bodies.” Gawkers clogged the streets with their fat-ass SUVs, impeding the ability of the ambulances and firefighters to maneuver around them. I jokingly told a few friends afterward that this kind of behavior makes me actually wish the world would end in 2012. Hope you were right, Mayans…or, rather, contemporary non-Mayans interpreting a cyclical event as an ending date rather than a temporal rebirth.

Anyhoo, there were a few of my ilk amongst the crowd, trying to convey their sense of shock to people on the other ends of cell phones. I imagined the people receiving the information on the other end in the same fashion they hear the news delivered every night: “Wow. You’re seeing a building burn down right now, huh?....(pregnant pause) What else is new?” And the almost palpable nervousness in the voice straining with exigency would be lost due to the fact that their friend is lost in a sea of dim images, "Backdraft" –esque Hollywood sets alight with controlled, pre-programmed bursts.

My point, if there is one, is that it is occasionally refreshing to realize that one is mortal, after all. Hyperreality often masks the disturbing, raw “real” so that it becomes a dim figment of our imagination, something beyond the pale. Every once in a while, you have to be reminded how fragile and exposed we really are. This is uncomfortable, yes, but it gives you the ability to appreciate every living second.