Wednesday, April 30, 2014

World literature and industrialism

Yang Jiechang, Crying Landscape: Three Gorges Dam (2002)
Because of the connection I see between the rise of material trade and commerce and Goethe's concept of world literature, I have for a long time been interested in the rise of technology and science and Western industrialization. Two centuries after the start of the so-called Industrial Revolution in England and its spread to other countries on the European continent, the rest of the world is getting on the bandwagon. Europe's industrialism was accompanied by the development of democratic and liberal institutions, which are lacking in most of the non-Western nations, but this drawback is not keeping countries like China from attempting to jump-start "progress." The Chinese already attempted to put a thousand years of technical backwardness behind them during the Cultural Revolution, and it remains to be seen whether China will become the superpower of the future that is daily prophesied by pessimistic Western intellectuals. Putting aside the rigidity of an ideology not "native" to China, however, has certainly helped the country's prospects.

Some works I saw yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art highlight this rush forward. They include a huge triptych banner by Yang Jiechang, showing the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. (Click to enlarge; it is really gorgeous.) I am trying to decide whether the setting could be considered "sublime."

Picture credit: Mario Naves

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

World literature and food prices

World literature takes me very far afield at times. Take the case of an article in The Guardian entitled "We don't value food because it is not expensive enough." What, one may ask, does the price of food have to do with world literature? I will try to explain, but, first, to the article, which intrigued me: anyone who has been to the grocery store lately, after all, finds that food is too expensive. I have been wanting to make leak soup for two years, but the price hereabouts, $2,99 a pound even in summer, is prohibitive. And zucchini at $1.99 a pound?

The article features a British woman who owns and runs a 117-acre "former council" farm where she raises sheep and engages in "animal husbandry. According to the article, Britain once had 16,000 such council farms, small parcels of land rented out to farming families or individuals who didn't have their own land, but that are now being sold off. (So, for those of you wanting to get out of academia and get back to the land, here is an opportunity.) She was prompted to buy the farm by the following question: "Do we want everything to be imported, to deny our farming heritage, to get rid of every opportunity for young farmers?"

Even those of us who have made their accommodation with modern mechanical civilization cannot but lament the disappearance of humans' former connectedness to "the land." Indeed, if you read Marx and Engels carefully, esp. their early writings, you can discern a desire for something less rationalistic and technological, in fact the suspicion that reason and science are not the answer to the human condition. Engels, in his essay on "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," writes of the pre-capitalistic era, when a craft worker could say: "I made that; this is my product." It strikes me that Marxism's "scientific socialism" simply systematized Romanticism, especially a desire for an organic society.

We who live in the affluent West, however, have the "luxury" to experience what we believe to be a more "organic" way of life. My own Boomer generation seems at times immensely alienated from all that has made our lives safe and comfortable. If we like, we can actually choose hardship: buy farms and carve out a new way of life for ourselves. If people don't have it in them to go back to nature and live, they buy "organic" foods or create living spaces that express an ethos that signifies their rejections of the larger industrial order. Personally I have nothing against such decisions; it is the upside of the affluent modern order that we can fashion our own destinies. And many of the small enterprises that people create through their hard work lead to employment for many other people, not to mention good coffee and food. I only hope that our government doesn't tax us so highly that future generations will be deprived of what we are so fortunate to enjoy.

 Now, to the price of food and world literature.

Goethe's remark that a foreign literature helps a nation to understand itself was prescient in an unintended way: on a mundane level novels as well as fashion journals were creating a desire to know how others were eating and drinking and dressing as well as the aspiration to imitate new fashions. Supranational trade and commerce began to unite the bourgeoisie of the different European nations in their tastes, contributing to an incipient cultural product, i.e., "Europe," that was alike in its eagerness for foreign products as much as for translations of foreign literatures. One result of such commerce is  products that efface national differences. I remember when you used to be able to tell Germans and French apart by the way they dressed; no more. Even Hollywood movies are increasingly made for an international market and, as has been remarked, often have little to do with American "values."

Another effect of such global commerce is that prices for commodities become increasingly lower and the products more widespread. Who could afford a personal computer thirty years ago? Only the wealthy. But now everyone can have one. Despite what I consider the prohibitive (for me) high monthly charge for iPhones or cell phone use, I notice that many people who might be considered poor have these devices. Prices for food may be higher in Manhattan where I live, but apparently in other parts of the West they are not. Thus, the complaint of the woman profiled in The Guardian. She wants people to pay more for food, because, she asserts, there is too much waste.

Well, no one who has eaten in a Manhattan restaurant can deny our wastefulness in regard to food. Affluence and a rising standard of living don't make people spartan or make them value what they don't have to struggle for. We take a lot for granted. Historically most people have struggled to feed and clothe themselves; do we wish to return to struggling? From what I have read, a fall in the rate of mortality in the late 18th and early 19th century led to an increase in population and thus the pressure to feed people. Capitalism rose to the challenge in the 19th century, and the result today is the multinational food enterprise.

Picture sources: 100 Red Flags; Enterra Solutions

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Goethe in the Veneto

Villa "La Rotonda"in Vicenza
I spent the past two days at a conference organized by Al Coppola, who now chairs the Seminar on Eighteenth-Century European Culture at Columbia University. (I was chair of the Seminar for several years, until 2007.) Though it took a bit of time to get off the ground, the conference commemorated the founding of the seminar 50 years ago, in 1962. Here is a link to website of the Seminar; scrolling down will bring you to the conference and a link to the program.

Among the Seminar's eminent founders were Peter Gay, Rudolf Wittkower, and James Clifford, all Columbia professors. For a talk I gave on the history of the 18th-century Seminar on February 5, I did a little research in the Seminar's archives. The early presentations centered around the concept of "Enlightenment." In going through the minutes of early meetings, I discovered that one trend of the Seminar has been a move from "big ideas" to "culture studies," with the latter focusing on very narrow aspects of material life in the 18th century. This trend represents a larger trend in 18th-century studies generally. In the opening roundtable the historian Isser Woloch described the transition in Norton anthologies from a concentration on "Kings and Philosophers" in the 1960s, to more recent presentations of the 18th century as "dynamic." Thus, a focus on population studies, religious life, the slave trade, private lives, including the role of women, and so on.

Architectural rendering
Thus, in the past half-century of the Seminar, topics of the meetings have focused on ever narrower micro-aspects of the 18th-century. In the U.S., and some extent at the Seminar, there has also been a strong bias toward the English 18th century, especially literature. Not having done a count, I can't say whether the recent ASECS conference, held in Williamsburg, was oriented in that direction, but the "micro" direction is evident from a cursory glance at the program.

The "rotonda"
Both Al and I have tried to keep the picture wide, and the recent conference did offer such a wider view of the 18th century. The paper by Sally Grant (recent Ph.D. from the University of Sydney, Australia) concerned the country house decoration of the Villa Vendramin Calergi at Noventa in the Veneto. I spoke with Sally afterward and brought up Goethe's visit to the Veneto. Goethe's renown travels far and wide, and she immediately mentioned the Villa "La Rotonda" (proper name: Villa Almerico Capra) as the villa Goethe had visited and described in Italian Journey. I include here some views of the villa, including the cupola interior (click to enlarge) that Goethe apparently saw. This site is of interest for its very detailed, critical discussion (in German) by Hubertus Günther of Goethe's architectural "insights" regarding Palladian architecture.

Friday, April 4, 2014

From philosophy to art

 I mentioned in an earlier post that one could learn a lot about Hegel by reading what others have written about him. Since then I have begun reading Hegel himself, at least his Aesthetics. Right from the beginning, when Hegel excludes "das Naturschöne" from his aesthetics, it was apparent why Goethe would not have traveled that road. What interests Hegel is "das Kunstschöne," which is superior to the beauty of nature because it is beauty born and reborn "aus dem Geiste." He goes on:

Ja formell betrachtet ist selbst ein schlechter Einfall, wie er dem Menschen wohl durch den Kopf geht, höher als irgen ein Naturproduct; denn in solchem Einfalle ist immer die Geistigkeit und Freiheit präsent.

Natural existences like the sun, he writes are indifferent, "nicht in sich frei und selbstbewußt."

Frankly this kind of thinking appeals to me.  It is not surprising that I am a scholar of the 18th century, not of the Romantic period. While I admire the beauty of the natural world, especially the order that it manifests, my heart does not leap when I behold a rainbow in the sky. I recall now that my heart kept beating after after Rick's death, but life no longer seemed worth living. When the first spring arrived, it was only with intellectual curiosity that I noted the rebirth of the flowers and the cherry blossoms in Central Park. It was Kant's observations on aesthetic judgment that pre-occupied me.

Kant is also a philosopher that one can learn a lot about by reading what others have said, although I did spend some time in graduate school grappling with the Critique of Judgment. And at some stage I got Kant's point: it is our ability to respond subjectively -- whether to the beauty of sunsets or to the Sistine Chapel -- that makes our other cognitive accomplishments possible. In other words, because we feel we can also think. Which doesn't mean that our feelings of pleasure or displeasure are objective, but these feelings seem validated because other people feel the same way. A kind of "universal hand" operates, especially in our public judgments, whether it concerns art or politics, and we find ourselves in a community of people who think the same way. (For this reason "TED talks" have always annoyed me: see this particularly obnoxious clip. The outtake? See how virtuous we are, and you can be, too, if you think like us.)

This may not be the usual way of interpreting Kant, but lately I came up with another new interpretation. Kant was laying down the condition for the possibility of experience. To 21st-century ears, Kant's statement about "enlightenment" -- "Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority" -- suggests autonomy, with its demand of independence from the opinions of others. From where we stand now in the 21st century, that statement seems to suggest that everyone should be independent of everyone else. But if everyone agrees on such an interpretation, it too is a subjective aesthetic judgment; it is "true" because "everyone" agrees. Freedom of thought, therefore, might lead to adherence to authority, not rejection of it.

In our critical judgments, in our evaluation of how we are to act, we may choose dependence, not for the extreme cases of which the philosophes spoke in the eighteenth century, but, for instance, in adhering to our marriage vows or our responsibilities toward our children or our students. (Diderot, however, sought philosophically to undermine the first.) In the modern world we are all in the same boat, but our "self-determining freedom" does not mean that we all evaluate life in the same way. I don't know if Kant predicted or hoped for the extreme outcome of autonomy in practice, but it does not follow that we are unfree if we accept our dependencies, especially in our relationships with others. Of course, it also follows that we critically evaluate the choices we wish to embark on, e.g., whether to marry or to have children. For most people, and I include myself here, critical evaluation often comes après (not avant) la lettre, at which point we are left with contemplating what role duty should play in determining our behavior.

The title of this post indicates what I had actually wanted to write about, namely, the 19th-century turn away from philosophy and toward art. Stay tuned.

Pictures sources: Hplus magazine; America Reads