". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Jim Jarmusch  wrote and directed this novel vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.

By describing Only Lovers Left Alive as "a novel film" is intended to convey that Jarmusch created something new with vampires.  It also implies a question about vampires I've meditated on now and again ever since a dream I had way back in the early 80's of the last vampire, his face peering at me out of a broken television set screen, on a desertified earth, on which there is no blood left at all.  Somehow, I, per se, wasn't there, I was only feeling what the vampire's face was expressing: horror, terror and despair.

Jarmusch's film goes deeper than that brief but so vivid dream.  His vampires have existed since at least the 16th century;

John Hurt as Kit Marlowe, Eve's blood supplier in Tangier
Kit Marlowe is one of the few other characters in the film.*  They are among the world's obscenely wealthy, the wealth employed for privacy, acquisition of toys and the purest, fresh blood, blood that in the 20th and 21st century they no longer needed to hunt, but can purchase in various ways.  They appropriately suffer the ennui of the dissolute idle rich who lack any purpose in existence.

Adam with his gofer, Ian, played by Anton Yelchen; he's terrific in the role.

A Detroit Punk Club, in which it has forever remained the 1970's.
Adam, Hiddleston's character, is a legendary pop musician whom no one knows or sees.  Evidently his music and musicianship has been featured in many mythic recordings since, perhaps, the late 50's into the 60's and through the 70's?  I'm guessing those three decades because of the pop music references shared by Adam and his wife Eve, played by Swinton, and the sorts of dinosaur recording equipment and technology that litter Adam's rickety, decaying mansion, **  in the area of Detroit. Adam's out-of-step with the 21st century ennui makes for very understated but effective occasional comic touches.

So here we have it -- the vampire tropes, played as an exploration of degeneration of our planet, focused through the deserted areas of Detroit and, in ever-widening circles of alarm, the ever-widening toxic contamination of the planet. By now, not only is much if not most of the global water supply been poisoned, so has most of the global blood supply.

The film takes its own time moving along its unexpectedly delicious trajectory, which may bore some viewers. Additionally, if the viewer knows nothing about guitars, recording or pop music from the 50's, 60's and 70's, or anything about Literature -- yes, Literature with a capital L -- that viewer will miss many delicious bits of meta and witty commentary.

However, my favorite line from the film is not about either music or literature. Instead, it's a subject about which I ponder much more seriously on a daily basis. While Adam and Eve are taking a drive through the ruins of Detroit, Adam respond's to Eve's lamentation as to what the zombies have done to this splendid city:
"It's blessed with water. It will come back and the southwestern zombies who did this to Detroit and have used everybody else's water will want it back."
I've been thinking that this could well happen as well. Water = the blood of our planet.

Zombies in Only Lovers Left Alive are the vampires' code word for human beings, which is a bit of meta commentary on current popular entertainment too.  The vampires are clear that human beings, the zombies, are responsible for the ruin of the world.


* In perhaps the only misstep Jarmusch makes in this film, in all the scenes that include Marlowe it's a given he's the author of Shakespeare's works.

* *  Eat your heart out, Elizabeth Hand -- how often has she employed the tropes of impossibly wealthy recluses, decaying mansions and artists from the 60's - 70's has she lovingly attempted to create by now?  It's not impossible at all that Jarmusch has read one or two of her novels -- though it wouldn't have been necessary for the making of this film.  These are such common tropes, and Jarmusch knows personally many a dissolute wealthy pop culture icon from those decades.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

38 Maps That Explain the Global Economy

by Matthew Yglesias on August 26, 2014:

Commerce knits the modern world together in a way that nothing else quite does. Almost anything you own these days is the result of a complicated web of global interactions. And there's no better way to depict those interactions and the social and political circumstances that give rise to them than with a map or two. Or in our case, 38. These maps are our favorite way to illustrate the major economic themes facing the world today. Some of them focus on the big picture while others illustrate finer details. The overall portrait that emerges is of a world that's more closely linked than ever before, but still riven by enormous geography-driven differences.
 One map example, but at the link, the maps are much larger, and easy to read:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Reading Wednesday: Horne, Crane, Gabaldon, Harkness

This is an unusual week in that as well as a new study of slavery in colonial North America, I read two novels.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014) by Gerald Horne (New York University Press), covers in granular detail part of what we look at in The American Slave Coast -- that among the driving forces of the American War of Independence were fear of abolition on the part of the southern elite slave holding class, and lust for Native land on the part of both north and south.


El V's and my bedtime read-aloud book has been  The Southern Frontier: 1670 - 1732 (1929), * by Vernor W. Crane (Ann Arbor Press, University of Michigan), a history of South Carolina's traders, who were instrumental in the enslavement of Natives. The Nativeswere mostly sold to the Caribbean, particularly Barbados, in the 17th and earlier 18th century. This accomplished three of the objectives of South Carolina as a colony: to make money, get labor and remove Indians via enslavement and war from the western lands.  Hopefully, all of it to the eastern bank of the Mississippi would be South Carolina, filled with plantations worked by slaves.  These slaves were far and away preferred to be Negro slaves -- Africans -- rather than Natives, because the Natives could escape too easily to friends and relatives in the wilderness -- even up to French Canada.

This aspect of colonial slavery is something not much looked at, as part of what the goals of South Carolinians were from the beginning of the colony, which was always envisioned as a slave-based feudal economy and society. Horne doesn't look at it (as being outside the scope of his own work?  As Crane's work is cited in Horne's own).  However, his arguments are sound around the fundamentals of the Seven Years War or the French and Indian War as it was called here, base the causes of it on 1) fear of Catholic interference with slavery (Spain and France) and, 2) demand to rid themselves of Natives, for their land and because they, like Spain and France -- and England too, often, (which is where his argument gets contradictory and fuzzy at times) -- allied with "Africans" for rebellion and to take the colonies from white Englishmen by conquest.

I still have this 1992 copy.
It had been years since I last re-read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander (1991).  I was prompted to do so again by the Starz miniseries based on Gabaldon's novel -- which was a sensation when published. I wish I had been able to edit the ms. There are glaring inconsistencies that shouldn't be in there.  I won't say what they are in case of spoilers, as the television miniseries is still in progress, with this one exception, which was "fixed" in the premiere episode of the television series:  In the novel takes Frank to tell Claire that it is blood on the stoops of the houses in the village where Claire and Frank are staying -- Claire, a WWII field triage nurse doesn't recognize blood when it's there, and needs a non-medical fellow to tell her this?  Why these crazy inconsistencies are in the published novel I cannot figure out.  At the time of publication there were many interviews and stories about Outlander as a phenomenon, which both the agent and the purchasing editor recognized it would be.  So it's not as though it was published as a throw-away.  (I was working in publishing then, so I got, heard and read all the industry scuttlebutt in those days.)  However, what probably matters most, is that the vitality of Claire's character, and her relationships with both her husbands, remain plausible, thus deeply interesting and satisfying.

Oddly enough though, Outlander's dealing with the deeper questions of time

travel is more satisfying than is The Book of Life (2014), the conclusion of Deborah Harkness's All Soul's Trilogy. In the first two novels Harkness brought up so many deep questions between what makes life and the nature of time, and there is a great deal of time travel too. This is what lifted her series out of the commonality of most fantasy fiction, particularly fantasy fiction that features witches, demons and vampires.  She was using fantasy tropes to delve into serious scientific questions.  But she drops all these matters in The Book of Life in favor of the usual business of which alpha is the most alpha of all, and saving the world for supernaturals.  Deeply disappointing -- and rather dull too.  The saving grace for The Book of Life is, as in the previous books, the purely delightful witches' house.  This is the most mysterious and wondrous element of the series.

This failure on the part of Harkness has to considered in light of her position, according to wiki:
professor of history and teaches European history and the history of science[4]at the University of Southern California.[5] She has published two works of historical non-fiction, John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy and the End of Nature (1999) and The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007).[5]
Gabaldon is a scientist: her MS in Marine Biology, Ph.D. in ecology, and was a university professor also, before becoming a full-time writer.

Ah well, I'll contemplate these matters under my Colombian sun shade hat, while I walk in the 90 degree muggy noon heat up to Union Square's Farmer's Market for peaches (even the local peaches are fabulous this year) and whatever else catches my fancy.  Then -- a chocolate dipped Dairy Queen. Fortunately, the only Dairy Queen in NYC, is on 14th Street too, a couple of blocks west of Union Square. This may be the last day of summer here ....


 *   Such magnificent work these earlier generations of professors and scholars accomplished in those days -- without internet, databases (just bibliographies!), google, any of the tools that has so transformed historical research in the last two decades. Among the many benefits these digital tools have bestowed is how much more possible it is to be an independent scholar, rather than on a faculty as a tenured professor. Which is fortunate too for scholarship, as there are fewer and fewer tenured faculty for history departments everywhere.  On the other hand these former scholars didn't live through publish or perish, and had a much more leisurely academic round than the changes brought to faculty and scholarship that were wrought post WWII -- and now to the point that faculty are hardly thought to matter -- any more than the students are thought to matter, other than cash cows to be milked for the real business of the academy now -- real estate moghulship.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On This Day in 1664 New Amsterdam Became New York

It's a summer of significant historical observations.  Today it's Nieuw Amsterdam becoming New York.

It's one of the many fascinating things about living in New City and New York state that the underlying Dutch culture has persisted.

 Peter Stuyvesant Surrenders Niew Amsterdam to the English.
He Wasn't Happy About It.

Not to mention many a legal fundamental, with documents created and executed during the regime of the Dutch, such as land titles (to land stolen from the Natives, of course), wills and many other material and financial property instruments.  We have entire legal libraries filled with these documents here in the city and in Albany.

This provides employment for the qualified.  There are services here that can translate these old Dutch language instruments and docs into English.

Perhaps the most significant contribution the original European settlers of this part of the world is their tolerance of diversity in languages, religions and, most of all, ways of making money.  Nieuw Amsterdam or New York -- this place was never about anything else except making money.  Which explains, of course, why NYC was the center of the New World's overseas slave trading in terms of financing ships, insuring them and so on, for the Caribbean and Brasilian trade.  They dominated in the decades post the War of 1812.  This, despite Rhode Island, who began earlier, started ahead of NYC in the trade, and always Boston was jockeying to seize the number one position for itself.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Lost Girl - Season 5 Will Be Its Last

This is a good decision because Lost Girl will depart as the special series it was.

Season 5 will "supersize" as they put it, into 16 episodes.  I am betting that the writers knowing this is it, they will make season 5 a killah.  Looking forward to it!

Story here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

'Tis the Bicentennial of the Battle of Bladensburg and the Burning of D.C.

August 24, 1814, a day of national infamy.

Which blundering event on the part of the nation and its leaders was merely one more blundering failure in this war that New England merchants agitated to secede over -- which is the likely explanation that so few remember and even fewer even know about the War of 1812. This, despite it being the hinge point in the towering career of Andrew Jackson, and his shaping of our subsequent national history up to and including the Civil War.  The Brits may have been having their successes against (mostly) very tiny, undefended towns and plantations along the Chesapeake in these years.  But Jackson was winning one engagement after another in the south and west, against Indians, against the Brits, against whatever he set himself against, including the wilderness itself.

Again, for the best description and analysis of this "forgotten war," the best source is Henry Adams's account in the volumes that cover the Madison administrations in his History of the United States of America.

Canada remembers the War of 1812 much better -- the northern conflict that is, not the Chesapeake conflicts and those further south.  This is because that war, in which they turned back the U.S. invasions has become a part of Canada's founding history as herself a nation.

Fortunately, in September came the Battle of Baltimore - Ft. McHenry, which not only stopped the Brits but redeemed American military reputation.

For a look at today's Bladensburg, go here.  With about 10,000 residents, it looks a very pleasant place to live -- as do so many small communities in Maryland's counties.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Wettest Place On Earth

The wettest place on earth is Meghalaya, in India, north of Bangladesh.  It is so wet that human-made bridges rot away so quickly as to be impractical.  For centuries the people of this region have been training the roots of rubber trees and bamboo shoots to grow into bridges.  The Atlantic Monthly has a splendid photo feature of the place and the bridges, here.

In a scene played out every weekday morning, students of the RCLP School in Nongsohphan Village, Meghalaya, India, cross a bridge grown from the roots of a rubber tree. In the relentless damp of Meghalaya's jungles, wooden structures rot away too quickly to be practical. For centuries the Khasi people have instead used the trainable roots of rubber trees to "grow" bridges over the region's rivers. (© Amos Chapple)

It is beyond comprehension the frequently expressed conviction that people without engineering degrees and traditional western education can't be technologically brilliant-- and, further, that biology isn't "real science."  Like any science, it can be technologically inventive, creative, and also beautiful, uniting perfectly form and function.

As well as the bridges, the jungles beneath Mawsynram hide "living ladders" curled into shape to assist villagers descending the steep flanks of the Khasi hills. (© Amos Chapple)