Saturday, March 14, 2009

worlds in collision...fortunately, not Velikovsky's or the other guys'

Looking at some books by local authors I have never been able to get into (we have some globalization theorists at Emory like Frank J. Lechner and John Boll who have written books on the topic and co-edited the 2003 Blackwell anthology The Globalization Reader), I have been reminded of how many autonomous areas of discourse (as the academics like to call them) exist to describe exactly the same phenomena.

And the fields of discourse themselves generate phenomena, as with the artworlds in which power and money are exchanged and the art itself is written about in the global magazines, versus the many others that are barely described but that function as limited scenes of aesthetic and commercial action, and the ones that are never described but are sustained by carefully directed hype and/or commercial need.

Lechner and Boll seem particularly committed to some areas of theory I haven't thought of in a while ("macroanthropology" being a case in point). Their take on the implications of the civil aviation system links them to the impressionistic (lovely impressions) studies of Pico Iyer on the lives lived until recently by the economic classes for whom "flying across oceans has become a mundane routine" rather than the once-in-a-lifetime experience it sometimes is for those emigrants who don't have to sneak across lightly defended borders at night. (There was a recent artwork in a global exhibition that commented on the alternate phenomenon, the forcible-deportation flights that the world's airlines do not advertise.)

Lechner and Boll belabor points that I wouldn't care to make, personally, but it is a reminder that what is commonplace (and has been since age twenty-three) for some people is completely never-thought-of-before for others. They feel compelled to begin with the point, for example, that while "extraordinary events like the Olympic Games" and the more ordinary events of world commerce exemplify world culture, all sorts of seemingly local enterprises such as a chess club already depend on a network of previously agreed-upon global structures. (I would say that they always have, the problematics of cultural hybridization dating back at least to the rise of world trade networks some time in the Late Neolithic.)

I'm still not sure that World Culture: Origins and Consequence asks the questions that I want to have answered—though I would need to read it closely to answer that question; though Lechner and Boll are serious theorists asking serious and valid questions, and do include many of the authors in their bibliography that I would want to see cited in such a book as this 2005 effort that has sat for a couple of years in my To Be Read Someday pile.

It is as Thomas Pynchon wrote in his Proverbs for Paranoids, if They can get you to ask the wrong questions, They don't have to worry about answers. But it is the fact that the world culture that they address is an actual entity at such right angles to the one I want to address that has got me to thinking.

International bureaucratic structures impose all sorts of implicit categories, as in the UNESCO lists of sites worthy of historic preservation...all of them more than exemplary and important to save for the sake of our common human inheritance, but somehow the very act of categorization creates the sort of artificial perspective that obscures as much as it enlightens.

For example, the plunder that has traveled around the world in the wake of invasions from time immemorial has as often preserved objects as it has destroyed them...and even this preservation has come under discussion, as in the case of Oceanic artifacts that were meant to rot but were carried off to museums instead. Museums in the countries involved own no such artifacts because the ones left on site decayed as they were intended. Yet there are now those in the countries in question who would like to get a few examples of what the local curators themselves no longer believe in, having gone on to prefer other cultural ways of organization instead.

And some philosophers of global culture such as Kwame Anthony Appiah have argued that instead of gathering up all the, say, Benin bronzes in West Africa it would be good to distribute Benin bronzes to museums in Greece and France that don't have any and send a few Greek vases and French medieval madonnas to museums in Africa with insufficient acquisition budgets.

But such issues maintain the salaries of a fair number of bureaucrats as well as museum curators and university professors, and the worlds in contention are seldom those of the folks on the ground who would like to have some say in what their local museum has or doesn't have. (Sometimes, those folks want to burn down or bulldoze the local museum, and that is a separate issue. As is the issue of whether the world's historic legacy ought to disappear into private collections as wantonly as the output of the world's art fairs currently does, or used to before at least a few collectors started prioritizing between buying paintings and keeping their private airplanes. I look forward to the ongoing reports in world newspapers from the various global art venues as 2009 continues.)


Anonymous said...

Just in case you're not familiar with him or his book, you can find out more about Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision at the Velikovsky Encyclopedia Website.

littlejoke said...

If you really want to know. I tend to make jokes on the assumption that everyone knows the book title. There are other guys who have assumed that world history somehow derives from things like the asteroid impact that really did wipe out the dinosaurs: see the evidence in the touring exhibition currently at Fernbank Museum of Natural History. I make no brief for anything but the collision of our metaphoric worlds of discourse, which all of us take to be literal worlds, or separate planets all co-habiting on this single one.