Category Archives: Nacirema

Another Rabbit Hole

A couple of days ago I was organizing books in the Auxiliary Library in the barn and happened on Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination (which I had bought in 2008, on just what inspiration I can’t recover, 12 years later). Many of the 40 essays contained within are interesting to probe again, touching as they do on interests and enthusiasms and questions that have arisen during those dozen years. The last third of the eponymous and first (“The Geography of the Imagination”, originally a Distinguished Professor Lecture at University of Kentucky in 1978) is an extended riff on American Gothic, Grant Wood’s evocation of American essence:


(Art Institute of Chicago)
(see Wikipedia entry)

Davenport’s four pages of deconstruction of this eidetic image is a lovely mapping of implications, of allusions, of in-knottings. Some are explicit references by Grant Wood, others seem imbricated [an overlapping of successive layers], where the pointer is to bricolage, in the sense of ‘creation from a diverse range of available things’, rather than to an orderly pattern of overlapping, as with shingles (bricoler is “to tinker”). A similar unpacking can be visited upon other familiar images, to get at the question of how and why they come to be eidetic, and I’m tempted to try some of that myself (stay tuned…).

It’s no surprise that American Gothic has been praised as representing “steadfast American pioneer spirit”, derided as Norman Rockwellish cliché of a[n imaginary] small town America, and widely replicated in satire and parody (see a blog devoted to instances). Here’s an instance from my own archives:

Kent and Shel 1969
Shel and Kent Anderson, 1969

At Any Price

Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records comes as close as anything I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot in this vein) to my own feelings and intuitions about musics, and then extends them into new territory.

With a few notable exceptions, blues music was rowdy and social, and its creators led brash, lustful lives. They drank and roamed and had reckless sex and occasionally stabbed each other in the throat. There was something incongruous about sitting in a dimly lit room, meticulously wiping dust and mold off a blues 78 and noting the serial number in an antique log book. Why not dance or sob or get wasted and kick something over? Some collectors, I knew, did exactly that, but for others, the experience of a rare blues record involved a kind of isolated studiousness, which of course was fine — there’s no wrong way to enjoy music, and I understood that certain contextual or biographical details could help crystallize a bigger, richer picture of a song. But I continued to believe that the pathway that allowed human beings to appreciate and require music probably begins in a more instinctual place (the heart, the stomach, the nether regions). Context was important, but it was never as essential — or as compelling — to me as the way my entire central nervous system involuntarily convulsed
whenever Skip James opened his mouth. (pg 62)

Petrusich interviews a broad array of collectors for their perspectives and personal histories, and has a gimlet-eared instinct for the trenchant quote. Here’s Ian Nagoski on collectors, and more generally on dudes:

It’s dudes hanging out, relating to each other through objects. It’s such a manifestation of dude culture, where guys tend to gather and not talk about their actual lives, if they can avoid it, but instead refer to the engine of their car, or whatever third thing they can talk about. And then through the aesthetics of that, they’ll relate to one another and get a sense of whether somebody is trustworthy or not and if they can actually open up to them. It’s a compensation for all kinds of male skills that are supposed to be present in adolescence that may not be present, so you compensate with other things — the superiority of specialization in some arcane field Science-fiction nerds and baseball-card guys, motorheads. Wanting to talk about your sound system first and your marriage months later. But literally having a shared aesthetic experience of a particular style of speaker could be the foundation of a lifelong, very, very deep male friendship. (pp 184-185)

Dave Van Ronk

Among the Great Joys is discovering and reading books that further enlarge what I already know about subjects I’ve been following for a while. As a lifelong collector of fugitive materials and odd bits of knowledge, my own personal landscape of such subjects is pretty well populated, and for some areas the prospect is highly articulated —musics being a case in point. My holdings threaten to overflow shelves and disk space, but there’s always room for more, and any given subdomain is always open for elaboration, via sound, print, video, and my own experiments.

Lately I’ve been reading two books that at first glance might appear to have very little in common: John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven and Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir. The two are in very different registers: Gardiner’s is über-scholarly and quite long, while Van Ronk is breezy and colloquial. Both are loving recreations of past time and place, full of outward links and references to things and people one already has some familiarity with. Both are significant social/cultural documents all by themselves, and both provoke orgies of listening and further ferretings. I’ll try to tempt you to further explorations of Van Ronk in this post, and save Gardiner for later.

Van Ronk’s perspective on The Great Folk Scare of the early 1960s is Greenwich Village-centric, and sometimes at odds with the Cambridge-centric version that populates Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years, but there are many viable versions of those realities. YouTube has lots of Van Ronk, and this clip gives a pretty good taste of what the written memoir is like:

Van Ronk’s book is full of quotable bits, stories and commentary both. For example, he says of jazz ear-training:

…There are people you can’t fool, people who can tell you, “No, that’s not Ben Webster, that’s Coleman Hawkins,” or “That’s not Pres, that’s Paul Quinichette,” and be right every time, and to do that, you can’t just groove with the music. You have to listen with a focus and an intensity that normal people never use. But we weren’t normal people, we were musicians. To be a musician requires a qualitatively different kind of listening… (pg. 10)

On toward the end of the book, Van Ronk offers this summary of the 60s folk era:

In fact, looking back on that period, very little of what got put down had much permanent value. There was a genuine artistic impulse, but the paradigms were flawed, and if you compare it to what was happening on Broadway in the 1930s, that scene was infinitely more creative and important than ours. The forms that were accepted as part of the folk matrix were too limited, both technically and in terms of staying power, and the ideology of the scene allowed for a great deal of sloppiness, which meant that nobody had to push themselves. Most of the songwriters were writing well below their abilities, and people who were capable of learning and employing more complicated harmonies and chord structures confined themselves to 1-4-5 changes. Some of them were enormously talented, but they were like an enormously talented boxer who insists on fighting with one hand behind his back. The result was that we produced a Bob Dylan, a Tom Paxton, a Phil Ochs, a bit later a Joni Mitchell –but we did not produce a Johann Sebastian Bach or a Duke Ellington…(pg 212-213)

I’m anticipating the release of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis a few days hence –it’s rooted in Van Ronk’s book, and I expect to love the film.

So I’m once again plunged into thinking about the ‘folk’ side of my musical interests, though I’m not much closer to a solution to the problem of organizing and interpreting their vastness.

On the supermarket frontier

Lately I’ve been taking my 87-year-old neighbor Don Miller shopping in Rockland. He’s a garrulous and interesting dude, long-time mechanic and lifelong Midcoast Maine resident, pretty fiercely independent (“they wanted to put me in a nursin’ home, but I wouldn’t have none of it…”) but no longer able to drive himself. I’ll hope to do him more justice another time, but here he is in his usual plumage:

DonMiller

He likes to shop at Shaw’s, a grocery store I don’t usually frequent (Midcoast folks tend to be fiercely loyal to one or another of the chain supermarkets), and I had time to wander in parts of the store that I don’t usually visit (I tend to shop the peripheries, not venturing into the land of High Fructose Corn Syrup that makes up the core of most supermarkets) and gather up bits of intelligence on what’s on offer these days.

Midcoast Maine is pretty far from the Big Time of American food crazes, but I was interested to see the variety that demands shoppers’ attention these days. Take couscous, scarcely a staple of the traditional diet of this region:

Couscous1 Couscous2
(below: Herbed Chicken, Original Plain, Mediterranean Curry, Roasted Garlic and Olive Oil, Parmesan, Toasted Pine Nut, and Basil and Herb –but see Near East for mooooore…)
Couscous3
And who knew that farro had made it into quick-fix packaging?
Farrotto
and as for Moroccan cuisine, packaged for American tastes:
Moroccan
The old reliable Boyardee appears in many guises, and here exemplifies the American genius for BIG:
OhAmerica
Now I wish that I’d thought to track the evolution of these innovations in American foodways, which I’m sure has been both rapid and punctuated. I mean, cranberries are a long-time New England staple, but what is one to make of infused dried cranberries? And just think what other flavors may show up on next year’s shelves…
Craisins
There’s a world of Anthropology of Food out there, begging to be studied and deconstructed.

Kunstler again

Jim Kunstler sure knows how to turn a phrase and sharpen an aperçu, exemplified in this bit from today’s blog posting:

We’re out of cheap oil, cheap and good ores, ocean fish, good timber, and lots of other things. All the stuff we erected to live our lives in – the stupendous armature of highways, strip malls, suburban houses, skyscraper condos, sewer systems, electric grids – is beyond our power to repair now. We can only patch it, and that can only work for so long before things go dark. (Can you sharpen a saw blade?)

Hmmmm… not a carbide-tipped blade.

Bingo

Jim Stogdill chez O’Reilly Radar:

Here’s what you need to know: Your mind is advanced enough to experience a self, a self that you think has intrinsic value. But that’s just a construction in your head. Your actual extrinsic value, I’m sorry to say, is just the sum of your known behaviors and the predictive model they make possible. The stuff you think of as “your data” and the web thinks of as “our data about you — read the ToS,” is the grist for that mill. And Facebook’s shiny front room is just a place for you to behave promiscuously and observably.

Amen.

Frost, ya say?

I’m making my way slowly through the Marcus and Sollors A New Literary History of America, savoring the articles in chronological order, and visiting territories I had no idea I’d find interesting. This morning it’s Christian Wiman’s “1915: Robert Frost leaves England for America” in which I find this lovingly constructed meditation on the essences of Nacirema culture:

One of the great ironies of American literature is that in a country in which, some new survey always seems to say, 95 percent of the people don’t simply believe in a personal God but can count the whiskers on his chin, so much of our best work should be so consistently fraught with anxious unbelief, galvanizing absence, spiritual terror… a spiritual energy that is both passion and plight, a metaphysical compulsion as fervid as it is unfixed. But this is perhaps not so surprising, since if one American impulse is toward a kind of spiritual vertigo, an equally strong one is the impulse to disguise this feeling with optimistic personae and evangelical enthusiasm. So much of American literature is about buried intensities because so much of American life is a mask. (pg. 537)