Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mad World, page 10

(c) M. E. Wells, 2010

Give me a week or so to finish the next section, and I'll continue the series....

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mad World, page 9

(c) M. E. Wells, 2010

Friday, October 08, 2010

Mad World, page 8

(c) M. E. Wells, 2010

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Music and meaning

I read this article on NPR’s website this morning, and was initially curious, then disappointed, and then compelled to write. A father seeks to give his daughter the albums that “get you through adolescence.” Upon skimming the list, and even upon finding many musicians I loved, I wondered—where are the women? Like Susan Douglas writes in ’95, in Where the Girls Are: “I’m a fan of all these guys, but I can’t help noticing that no comparable celebratory tributes have been made to Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, or Aretha Franklin (6).” And in my head, I added more to this list, bringing my list into the immediate present with Anaïs Mitchell, who I just saw live in Turners Falls last week. But something else was bothering me.

It’s just like adults, self-centered adults, to assume that we can impose on our children the same realities, the same experience, the same loves just by giving them the same albums that meant so much to us. Our love for our music is bound to time, and place and experience. Nothing can reproduce the feeling I had, riding around in Aileen’s first beat-up car, with Country Joe and the Fish blasting. At once I felt free and rebellious, and at the same time I squirmed, wondering whether someone in conservative Eastern Tennessee would get belligerent about Vietnam, and pick a fight with us. Nothing can reproduce the feeling of listening to John Coltrane’s Stellar Regions for the first time in the middle of the night in a dorm room on the South Side of Chicago. And even though I don’t care about these guys anymore, the songs of Blur, Oasis, and Weezer that my friends put on my mix tapes will still resonate, even when these songs feel hopelessly dated.

The fact is, kids have to find music on their own. I’m not saying that the daughter in question won’t cherish these albums—but that it can’t be forced. The moment dictates the feeling. I’ve known this for a long time, as an historian. I’ve long been an amateur historian, in the true sense: I do it for love. I go to the places my mother and father lived—look at their apartments, their houses their schools. I drive into the Bronx looking for the boulevard my mother walked up, holding her grandfather’s hand. The street is working-class, seedy and lovely, as it must have been then too.

I have in my hand an album of hers: The Cardinal (film by Otto Preminger, score by Jerome Moross). From inside the album, a piece of math homework falls out, done for a class at a Catholic school in Salt Lake City. The music, of course, is wonderful. But this is not an album of my adolescence. Even though I love the music, the feelings it evokes are wistful. Why? Because for me, it evokes a time that I know about, but never experienced. A wish, perhaps, that I could know how my mother felt on the edge of the West, in a sleepy city, in the middle of a decade where, everywhere else, the world was on fire. But I can’t know these things—not even when I listen to her old Rod McKuen or Glenn Yarborough records. No matter how much we love the past (our own, or someone else’s), we are each required to live our lives in the present, never knowing what’s coming next.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mad World, page 4

(c) M. E. Wells, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mad World, page 1

(c) M. E. Wells, 2010

Beyond the Pass

Beyond the Pass is an economic history of the Qing’s dealings with, conquest of, and maintenance of empire in Central Asia, or Xinjiang, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries. While the majority of the book examines trade relationships, Beyond the Pass also discusses the rationales given for maintaining a struggling or costly territory, and also Chinese perceptions of the land itself as romantic, foreign, barbaric, or even familiar. As a preface to this discussion, Millward has written an engaging historiography of the field, which skewers some of the icons of historical writing on China, including John King Fairbank, Owen Lattimore and William Skinner. Millward expresses dismay at the treatment of Inner Asia as secondary or peripheral to China’s interests, particularly given the Qing government’s emphasis on conquest and maintenance of empire there, at the expense of its borders in other places, and in the face of losses of control to the west (5). More importantly, perhaps, these authors are critiqued for their frameworks of understanding China’s relationship with its territories and ethnicities.

Millward begins in almost a narrative fashion with Qi Yunshi’s journey northwest to Xinjiang, and his preconception of the terrain there, in comparison with his actual findings. Millward brings this idea full-circle in his final chapter, by using Han Dynasty poetry about Xinjiang, and a modern “Xinjiang folksong” to illustrate perceptions of the area as foreign in varying ways. Even though Beyond the Pass is not a cultural history, Millward considers this perception of the terrain because the use of “terrain” in the division of China from Inner Asia has been so crucial to the arguments of Millward’s historical predecessors. This book is a re-examination of widely held ideas of assimilation into Chinese culture (Sinification), and a hierarchical and concentric system of tribute surrounding a central Chinese entity.

I was puzzled, at first, by the harshness of Millward’s accusations of prior historians Fairbank, Lattimore and Skinner, until I realized that Millward is taking issue with a very specific subgenre of literature on China—specifically, the social histories and economic analyses that had been written in the early to mid-20th century. These social and economic histories that Millward is challenging are distinct from other histories of the Qing by virtue of their closeness with social science. The social scientist’s outlook on China, particularly when examining the 19th century, would be overwhelmingly an attempt to explain the (perceived?) failure of Qing China to adequately respond to the intrusion of the west. This framework of response, and its focus on Western-Chinese relations may be a specific characteristic of 20th century American scholarship on China. Millward and others, at the end of the 20th century, find this model incomplete and possibly misguided, and with the help of newly available source material, are able to look at the Qing Empire from different perspectives—in its relationships with its territories, internally between ethnic groups, or economically, apart from dealings with the West.

Millward’s sources are diverse, resulting from the increased access to Qing archival materials from which Crossley and other authors benefitted. Palace memorials, gazetteers, financial records, and a substantial historiographical collection from (mostly) the mid to late 20th century make up the majority of sources. As reviewer Linda Benson suggests, in the American Historical Review, Millward’s critique of earlier scholarship seems “somewhat disingenuous, as these pioneers of Chinese history in America had no access to the Qing archives that have clearly stimulated a re-thinking of Chinese relations with Inner Asia.”

A few parts of the book, in particular, caught my eye. The first is Millward’s “mapping” of Gaozong’s vision for the Qing Empire, in comparison to prior historical analyses (197-203). It certainly seems like one of the main points of the book to demonstrate the Qing view of the empire as not “starkly hierarchical,” but in a “parallel” relationship with Muslims, Mongols, Manchus, Tibetans and Han Chinese, with the Qing Imperial House (not identified as “Manchu”) at the center. I was amused and interested to read Millward’s analysis of the cover design for Fairbank’s book, The Chinese World Order, because in his view, the concentric octogons represent an older Sinocentric idea of China and its foreign relations in Asia. The skeptic in me, however, says that this design has about as much to do with Fairbank’s point as the interlocking cubes on the cover of Kuhn’s book have to do with the structure of scientific revolutions. Also interesting was Millward’s discussion of official and “out-of-office” scholars’ thoughts about the retention or possible loss of the Xinjiang region, and their rationales for maintaining it. In addition, Millward’s narrative moments, speculative though they may be, keep the book from becoming too dry, and add color to what could have been a personless economic history.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Manchus: second installment

Well, that last post on The Manchus was a whole lotta verbiage for only the first 10 pages! I will try to get a little further with this second post. I wanted first to explore what I think is the intent of the series, which I have yet to verify. The intent that I can divine is to present the peoples of Asia apart from their connections to nations or empires. This might seem obvious, but at least in the case of the Manchus, the population that was so-named was very diverse and had streamed in and out of societies and alliances long before they acquired the name “Manchu,” or led a Chinese empire. So much for my assessment of intent; this may be the first book in the series because series-editor Morris Rossabi happens to be expert in this area. So, now, I’ll talk a bit about the sources used here.

Crossley expressly discusses her source material—and the available sources for all historians—in the introduction. She may, in part, feel this necessity because new sources have become available for a variety of reasons. American access to sources had been variable through the 20th century, and downright difficult at many points. Internally, the Chinese may also have found some difficulty finding or using unusual sources too, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. Some suggest, too, that sources which present divergent or non-nationalist viewpoints have at various times been suppressed or destroyed. I am not sure, at this point, how much that applies to the study of the Qing empire or the Manchu ethnicities, but it seems to have affected it.

The other source-related discussion is around new findings, or perhaps sources which have been used in non-traditional or innovative ways. Korean sources are essential to Crossley’s work, particularly the narrative of a diplomatic visit to “Manchu” khan Nurgaci. The narratives of travelers, students, and merchants add another dimension to official state records, upon which many histories have probably been formulated. Manchu sources of varying kinds have also enjoyed a resurgence, in part because of recent interest in the Manchu language. Like the Korean sources, there are non-traditional sources, like poetry, drum-songs, ballads, eulogies and other writings in the social-history tradition. The use of sources like these in a social or cultural context seems like a no-brainer, at this point—but the further into the past we venture, the fewer of these exist . . . not to mention, the meanings of these sources become increasingly contestable!

So, once having dispensed with these necessary considerations, Crossley leaps into the history of the Manchus. This gets a little complicated because the name “Manchu” is a 17th century invention following conquest of Han China by northern peoples (roughly speaking, the Jurchen, with Kitans and others). Crossley, then, must begin much earlier, in order to talk about the ethnic and linguistic background of the peoples who became the Jurchen, who became the Manchus. There are a series of complex allegiances on a large scale, and smaller familial or social groups which have been labeled “clans” to indicate “consciousness of mutual descent (25).” There are a couple points in this discussion that I found particularly interesting.

The first has to do with some of the linguistic origins of Manchu. I won’t discuss here, but I will suggest that the ability of early language to travel long distances and be adopted is a marvelous thing. The second is the historical/anthropological use of “clan.” This struck me as an oddly western and possibly pejorative usage, though Crossley clearly doesn’t intend it as such—the tern “clan” to describe the social groups of the Jurchens has been in use for some time. However, I was surprised to see Crossley retain it when she chose to use “Taiping War” for “Rebellion,” and “Qing Empire” for “Dynasty.”

Finally (for the time being!), I was interested in the “re-education” the Jurchens or Manchus used for their aristocrats who had strayed too far from the hunter/warrior persona. I was very much reminded of modern re-education of elites and professionals. This is not to say there’s a connection—there’s not!—but I was reminded of Umberto Eco’s colorful characters in the novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, who find that everything in the world is rife with connections, if we only make them.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Manchus: first installment

I’ll be taking this book in several chunks, because it is assigned to me, and I have the time to read in leisure and contemplation before the beginning of school. So, The Manchus, by Pamela Crossley. This is the first installment of a Blackwell series called The Peoples of Asia. I’m not sure if this series was ever finished—particularly because Blackwell became Wiley recently. Having made a long-term study of introductions and prefaces, I found the introduction of this book slightly puzzling. It suggests at, but doesn’t describe the original vision of the book by the series editor, Morris Rossabi. The implication is that the book differs in some basic way from this original vision, and may somehow be linked to the book’s presentation of the Manchus as distinct from “China,” “the Qing Dynasty” and of course the Mongols. In some ways some of this discussion seems a little superfluous… all introductions these days have an extreme sense of modesty and apologetic quality that seems over the top. Alright already!

But let’s suppose that in 1997, the explicit statement that the Manchus need to be considered apart from their various organizations and empires had to be said. That is, if I’m reading her intent correctly! However, I’m unsure what she means by the “frontier of knowledge of Manchu history and culture is receding so quickly that it is hazardous indeed to pretend to write down anything about it for a general audience.” Does she mean that, populated by an excess of historians, the frontier is increasingly contested, and that the book’s lifespan may be short? This is the best interpretation I can offer, and yet, this is the occupational hazard of the historian in general.

Moving on, I ventured into the first chapter, which is dedicated further to the idea of separating out the ethnic-groups, movements, organizations, nations and empires the Manchus were created by or affiliated with. For someone (myself) who is less than well acquainted with the history of the European and Asian continents before 1800, this can be slightly confusing. We learn a truncated version of Asian history which equates these groups when convenient. On the other hand, we might think of the Manchu history in the same way we consider the peopling of America. It would be silly for an American to fail to distinguish between the Aztec Triple Alliance and the Iroquois, though they were both native populations of the Americas. Similarly, we know now that we can’t equate the nations of native populations as they were in 1500 with the organizations of native populations in the 19th century. Since we are Americans, we’re very much aware of the nuances of our own history, while Crossley finds that she has to explain the differences here.

After she has given us the basic ethnic derivation of the Manchus, she jumps into the current, or 20th century view of the Manchus, which is very much tied up with the Qing Dynasty or empire. She connects the identification of the Qing as a Manchu empire with the subsequent Chinese nationalism, and then socialism in the 20th century. Meaning that 20th century Chinese were eager to identify the 19th century failures of China with a non-Han ethnic group, and thereby explain those failures (maybe conveniently forgetting the strength of the empire prior to the 19th century). This is something I haven’t heard before, but which seems legitimate. For my own part, I have always attributed these 19th century difficulties to a gestalt of the time. Likewise, the Republican period and the revolution seem very much tied to what was in the air around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, history is often used as a way of galvanizing public opinion, and I’m willing to believe that this was, consciously and unconsciously, perhaps.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Open Empire: first impressions

The Open Empire is a textbook that is assigned for the 114 survey course in Chinese history. Since I’m an assistant for the course, I thought I’d get ahead with the readings, starting with a general overview of the history that I hope will be useful grounding for the subsequent primary source readings. Hansen makes some bold claims in the introduction that she’s doing something different with the book. I’m not sure how different some of these broad points are . . . every newish text on China asserts that it, unlike others, is not portraying China as a static, closed entity based entirely on dynastic succession. But I guess it’s worth stating when that view prevails anyway (as does the idea that the reflection of the ocean makes the sky blue)—such misconceptions are difficult to dislodge.

It is interesting that she makes, as a primary focus, the disputed elements of dynastic succession, or the contested archaeological finding s, particularly (for me) in the period between 2000 BCE and maybe 500 CE. This is a period about which I know very little, in any context (save a rough idea of the Middle Eastern world)—I certainly know very little about European settlement and travel at this time. Hansen tantalizingly suggests a European/Caucasian settlement in region of Xinjiang between 2000 and 500 BCE. Not only is this pretty darn cool, but so are the unusual sculptures of Sichuan. These include a mask with stylings that look like Canadian first-nations art (ie. Haida), and a “tall priest” sculpture which looks like no art I’ve ever seen before. While I’m sure there are scholarly treatments of these nuggets, they are not yet overtold in the general history of China, and as a result seem excitingly new.

What Hansen really attempts to do—which may be different from most traditional textbooks—is include unusual sources to give a better glimpse into the lives of women, minorities, travelers, and other folks who don’t make it into the written histories of Sima Qian and his successors. I will be interested to see what elements of the textbook students attend to most, and what they think of the general tone.

Monday, August 02, 2010

The End of Victory Culture: overview

Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture is interesting enough, and provocative enough to merit a few days worth of responses. I’m not particularly interested in reviewing the book (or any book)—reviews are boring, and plentiful enough in any scholarly journal. I did find quite a bit to respond to, however, and hopefully in the process of response I can provide a sense of Engelhardt’s book for the reader(s) that I have.

In brief, the book is an amalgam of personal experience of a Cold War youth, media and culture analysis, and history of the US between World War II and the present. His purpose is to expose the “victory culture” of the US (propagated by media and industry, particularly those that are geared towards children), and its decline from the Vietnam War to the present. Engelhardt makes this book relevant by tying it to America’s more recent efforts abroad—even as recent as our crash-and-burn attempts at installing democracies in the Middle East (or newfangled imperialism, either way . . . and incidentally, for my right-leaning readers, if you grow frustrated with what seems like a lopsidedly liberal reading list, maybe I will address this in a later post!). At any rate, Engelhardt is not only critical of American military and diplomatic approaches, but also sees the US as the next logical casualty of the end of the Cold War. If East Germany and the USSR went out with a bang, the US simply endured a more gradual slide from superpowerdom.

Anyway, I was able to flip to any page of this book and pick up reading . . . which more than anything else is a testament to my familiarity with this time, and this particular cultural history. It helps to be fluent in the films, literature, comics and toys Engelhardt talks about. In fact, there’s much to compare about our mutual experiences, despite a difference in age. One of the minor problems with the book is its tendency to jump around from cultural reference to reference, possibly leaving the reader with the sensation that he has lost the thread. I often lost the thread, and as a result wondered if I was missing the point.

I don’t think so, though. Ultimately, Engelhardt is doing this: complicating the picture and reading things against the grain. How modern historians (well, he’s an essayist, not an historian, but whatever) love to complicate things! I think I saw a humorous piece on that in The Chronicle of Higher Education. As frustrating as it can be to read work after contemporary work which complicates but does not answer, it reflects a reality about the world which is absent from the definitive histories of the past. This is particularly important when we are basically still living in this world. The people who experienced these cultural moments are still alive; the wisps of all this cultural miasma are everywhere, even now.

As for reading things against the grain (or even with it), I think Engelhardt does a creditable job—but misses some interesting phenomena that I wish I could mention to him, and get a sense of his reaction. I’ll discuss some of these things in a later post. I do appreciate his inclusion of himself in the narrative, in much the same way that Susan Douglas does in Where the Girls Are. The particulars of his and my experience of the Cold war are something that I’d also like to write about. Finally, this book prompts me to write about the uses of film and television as sources in academic work—the good, the bad, and the really memorable.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Small picture: newsboys

I'm here to post a little drawing from earlier today, but I also have a favor to ask. If you're reading this, can you comment that you're doing so? I'm curious to know if I have any readers besides Kate. You can comment anonymously; I just would like to know. Okay, on with the newsboys:


Thursday, July 29, 2010


I took these images of my bookshelves, meaning to post them--and I'm finally getting to it now. Why? I don't know, I felt like sharing what was in my collection. They appear in descending order of importance, and I'll explain why. Click on the photos if you can't read the titles--the images are large enough.

First shelf: This one is the closest, and reachable from the couch. I was only able to take a picture of the top half as a result. The top shelf is mostly an assortment of Greene, Maupin and noir masters Chandler and Macdonald. The second shelf is the first part of my anthropological/museum/historic preservation collection. Below this, not pictured, are the large architecture books and the collected "Love and Rockets." And of course, there is the deer skull, which I found and cleaned myself.


Second shelf: This shelf is of equal importance to the previous one, and is also reachable from the couch. It has my historic books, some really great literature (Beattie, Barker and Waugh), my Rivers collection, and my China collection with Guy's book signed to me. Boy, is that geeky! There are more China books and some L&M readings not pictured below.


Third shelf: Some of these books I like, and some of them I could do without. Classmate Dan thought having Foucault next to Neil Gaiman was funny. Percival Everett is on this shelf, and he rocks. On top, you can see a large piece of obsidian which I pilfered from Mono Lake on the border of California and Nevada, and a couple of other desert rocks. There are also two old Mickey Spillane paperbacks.


Fourth shelf: Some of these are pristine history books which I didn't like the first time around, and might never read again... but you never know! Of course, there are a few old favorites. And then there's the coyote skull up top, obtained in New Mexico, but found and cleaned by someone else. Oh, and there's an old hand plane and spokeshave too. I put those there to redeem a lackluster shelf.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Arc of Justice

How shall I describe this book? After cleansing my palate with a 50s Ross Macdonald noir (The Ivory Grin), I decided to jump right in to this book which has made it onto several faculty core lists, despite the subject matter being out of line with my own field interests. With Arc of Justice, Kevin Boyle has given us a compelling and sometimes manipulating narrative history. As soon as I began, I could see why this book won the National Book Award (you know, the other NBA. Although, as an aside, I wonder a little at some of the past winners of the National Book Award, don’t you?).

Anyway, the book is incredibly readable. I sat down this morning, and finished it this afternoon. It is this kind of writing that attracts annoying comments like, “so facile,” when clearly a lot of painstaking work has been done. But I suppose that’s the ultimate compliment: “you make it look easy.” And it’s a lot easier to make it look easy when you write a narrative history. While reading narrative history is often fast, it holds certain irritations for me. One of them is the tendency of the author to draw my conclusions for me. Of course, authors always do this—but non-narrative histories are so littered with questions and complications that it’s sometimes possible to ignore the path the author is trying to lead you down.

Not with Arc of Justice. Boyle gives us a complicated portrait of the people involved—make no mistake—but the meaning is unquestionable. Boyle sets the stage of a Detroit almost on fire with racial and ethnic and economic tensions in 1925. A place where a mob of 500 people could descend on a Black resident’s house and wrest the title of the house from him without facing any legal repercussions. In this environment, Dr. Ossian Sweet bought a bungalow and proceeded to defend it—and the book tells us that story, and the story of his trial ahead. In and amongst that story are other, smaller stories: Sweet’s family background, Detroit’s ethnic and political atmosphere, the NAACP’s work, and a bit of Clarence Darrow’s background, among others.

When you read this story (as it is written) you want to say to Sweet: “Hell, why are you going to Detroit? Go anywhere in the country but Detroit—what are you, crazy?” But if not Sweet, then someone else—and possibly not someone who would have garnered the legal defense of Clarence Darrow. What I took away most of all from this book was not the legal, the political, or the organizational work around the problems of race, economy and housing . . . but the simple observation that hundreds of people in a neighborhood would allow themselves to be complicit in a crime of racial violence. I think this is a theme that is repeated often, and yet it needs more repetition: the ability of “ordinary,” “average,” even “innocent” people to become part of a large, violent injustice—and then to proceed to lie about it; to feel justified in it and not ashamed.

Also of interest in the narrative is the colorful depiction of the legal system, especially as used by Darrow. If I were a defense attorney, who better my role model than Darrow? He was not always a winner of cases, it’s true. But tactically, he was amazing. (In this book, Darrow and Murphy are heroes—nothing here to sully them) Most of his work is completed before the case even starts. The judge (Murphy) was a lucky stroke—but not the jury selection process. And it was clearly not for Darrow to proceed by the book. While law is no doubt different, today, I’m certain that his jury selection and cross-examination processes are oft-studied and imitated.

But, back to the subject. The narrative is defined by its beginning and end (says William Cronon in “A Place for Stories”) and the beginning sets the stage with the hot, tense fear of being trapped in a bungalow with an angry mob outside, and ends 35 years later when Ossian Smith shoots himself in the head, on the eve of the civil rights movement. Here is the one silent place where the reader is allowed to let the vast, troubling expanses just sit . . . and to wait for his own questions to form.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Spitting Image

A brief foray away from China, for a moment, to talk about The Spitting Image, a book by Jerry Lembcke about myth-creation around the returning Vietnam veteran. This is a slim book and a quick read—and while I’m not in love with the writing, I think Lembcke has a point which has eluded a lot of Americans. For this reason alone, it’s worth reading and assigning to students (especially high schoolers and undergraduates).

The main premise behind the title is that the idea of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran is a myth, of sorts. The myth has many origins, and several intents. But Lembcke’s most important point is that the portrayal of ill-treated veterans took the emphasis away from the US losses in Vietnam. Furthermore, it placed the guilt for the loss squarely upon the American public, and away from government or military decisionmaking. Lembcke has the right credentials to write this book, which might be considered incendiary from a civilian. Lembcke is a Vietnam veteran, however.

The myth of the spat-upon veteran comes from a couple arenas. First and foremost, it seems to be a political invention, meant to bring people in line with policies they don’t agree with—by suggesting that the people fighting the war have been demoralized by protest. It also may have arisen from misunderstandings—such as the egging (by pro-war demonstrators) of veterans participating in anti-war marches. Lembcke finds no evidence of spitting incidents, save in second-hand reports, films, and dubious claims.

He suggests that this doesn’t mean it never happened, only that it’s been inflated to encompass the entire experience of homecoming for the Vietnam vet, just as homecoming for the WWII vet is pictured, erroneously uniformly, as the tickertape parade with the kissing, etc!

Lembcke spends a chapter talking about veteran homecoming as portrayed in film (from the early years of the war through the 1990s). In most of these examples, the veteran is portrayed as: hated or downtrodden, incapacitated, or mentally unstable. He includes a discussion of PTSD, as it emerges in the DSM, to accompany this analysis. While he’s very, very right about portrayal in film, I wish he had looked at a couple of television programs as well. Specifically, “Barney Miller,” and “Hill Street Blues.” As you may recall, Wojciehowicz and Lt. Calletano are both well-adjusted Vietnam vets on these two shows. Possibly there are more examples like this.

What colors the conclusions of the book is Lembcke’s association with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. While it’s true that many veterans were at least skeptical of our intentions, and at most outright protestors, veterans still would have felt the class tensions at work in society. While spitting seems to be mostly an invention, surely there were divisions even between protesting veterans and protesting civilians.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Party and the Arty: Normalizing Nudity

Alright, a radical shift away from Vietnam/America politics, to a discussion of mid-century to contemporary Chinese culture and art. These chapters from The Party and the Arty will appear out of order. Kraus spends this chapter writing about the uses of, and the controversies over nude art in China in the latter half of the 20th century. Most of the analysis is of the time just after the Cultural Revolution (late ‘70s) and the early 1990s. A crucial point seems to be 1989, the year of the Beijing Massacre—but also a focal year for art exhibitions including the nude figure (usually female).

The main point of the chapter is to suggest that there was a trajectory in the purpose of nude art—from (ostensibly) criticism of the work as obscene, to an only nominally contested and mostly accepted art. This occurs not as a smooth progression, but in fits and starts, with quite a lot of backtracking.

This chapter provides an interesting contrast with some of the same issues occurring in America at the same time. Though I’m sure that whole books have been written about nudity in American art over time, and response to it—I would not be terribly inclined to read them. What might be nice is a slim chapter like this one, with which to compare it.

China’s nude art seems to have reproduced power structures within gender and ethnicity in almost exactly the same way as the west has for hundreds of years. That is to say that even amid communist-inspired gender equality, the model in nude art is female, passive, and maligned . . . and the artist is male. Furthermore, the model is often either an ethnic minority (non-Han Chinese) or a western woman. Here there are elements of exoticism, power relations between the Han and ethnic minorities, and the sense that Han women would be violated somehow by being the subjects of nude art.

The politics of the displays of nude art seem remarkably similar to American controversies. Some of the comparable events I thought of were these . . . there was the famous statement of Justice Potter Stewart about obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” This appears to have been the Chinese model for decades. Local officials, the public, and artists themselves seem to have applied inconsistent standards based on general consensus at the moment—or even personal judgments. Similarly, I’m reminded of the controversy over public funding of “Piss Christ” (you remember that). Some of the natural comparisons that I made between China’s understanding of obscenity versus artistic nudes, and America’s political relationship with art and obscenity segued nicely into the next chapter about censorship.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Vietnam Wars and Nixon

I don’t really know where to begin talking about the Nixon administration’s war in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia). Let me just say simply that it was primarily about deception. If Johnson purposefully ignored what people were telling him, in favor of ‘loyalty,’ Nixon worked even harder to fabricate a story, and surrounded himself with people who were willing participants in deception. This is not news, of course. Interestingly, I think most people in the US associate Nixon with the Watergate burglary, and perhaps with illegal wiretapping . . . but it’s seldom mentioned in popular conversation that Nixon was behind the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia. The US involvement in Cambodia during the Vietnam War created and exacerbated the problems which led to the nightmarish rise of the Khmer Rouge.

As with Johnson, this book doesn’t really investigate Nixon’s motives (or the motives of the people he surrounded himself with)—that is the stuff of biographies. But I find it difficult to reconcile the multiple pictures of Nixon. With Johnson, I don’t see such a huge personality discrepancy based on his actions—but I find Nixon troublingly complex. Young’s book characterizes Nixon’s outreach to China in the early 70s as a strategic move to ensure that China would put the right kind of pressure on Vietnam. To some extent, this strategy worked—but ultimately didn’t fulfill US goals. On the other hand, having read China-centric works about this first meeting between the US and the PRC, I’m not willing to believe that his visit was only strategic with regard to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Furthermore, we have an oddly sympathetic picture of Nixon in other areas. Young describes a “hallucinogenic” moment when Nixon couldn’t sleep, amid the demonstrations and killings at Kent State, Jackson State, and the capitol, when he and his valet Manolo Sanchez took a walk in the middle of the night out to the Lincoln Memorial. He talked casually to the demonstrators there (described on pages 249-251) about the broadening effect of travel. Young turns around the common phrase to suggest that this is the “evil of banality.” I’m still not sure what to make of this, and of other personal and political details about Nixon that seem in such contrast to his apparent lack of scruples or compassion in other areas. I suppose that while all heroes have feet of clay, the converse can be argued: all villains have moments of humanity.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Vietnam Wars, 1963-1967

For those who are tired of hearing about the Vietnam War, I am coming almost to the end of this series of posts—and then I’ll be starting in on a new book, I daresay! Young’s discussion of the years between 1963 and 1967 seems to be more of the same situation that she describes prior to 1963. This includes:

1. Willful US government (State Department, advisors, and CIA) ignorance—particularly about US mistakes
2. Layers of complexity and paranoia added to US strategizing, coming from little or no evidence
3. Disconnect between government and US public understanding of the conflict
4. Insistence upon US interest in negotiation, while actions say otherwise

About each of these, taking us into and through the Johnson presidency: the NLF insurgency in the south was very large, and worked both within and around the US-chosen government. It was related to a greater Vietnamese nationalism, but was not entirely funded or supported by the north—in fact, much of the resistance in the south came entirely from within. The CIA and the State Department apparently ignored all evidence and warning signs about the detrimental nature of the US role in the country. In what seems like a haze of paranoia and unwarranted layers of complexity, the US government strategized itself into escalating the conflict into all-out war.

As events occurred, and the news of the events made their ways back to Washington, layers of lies, misunderstandings, spins, fantasies, and interpretations seem to have been added. Particularly unsavory was the unprovoked US attack in the northern/international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, which was somehow translated into an act of retaliation against a North Vietnamese attack—at least, that’s how it was sold to Congress.

Young writes, tellingly: “Years later, as the lies were exposed and Congress tried to distance itself from the war it had sanctioned in 1964, many senators claimed that had they known the facts, they would have opposed the resolution.”(120) It sounds distressingly familiar.

What may not be familiar is the type of US presence on the ground. Westmoreland’s strategy of “search and destroy,” as it was employed by actual troops, appears to have been searching and destroying at random. Young provides lots of evidence that the US troops found ways of justifying attack on any population. In effect, the strategy on the ground was no strategy at all. After the destruction had occurred, the US and South Vietnamese troops would return to bases and southern strongholds, rather than staying in the villages. This allowed the NLF to return after the destruction, and recruit, rebuild, and govern among the remains. I am not sure how US strategy works today—it would be interesting to know if the US made any adjustments to this strategy in its modern maneuvers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another interesting note is how the US public seemed to see the conflict with much more clarity than US agencies, politicians and advisors. Whether the public in question wanted to end the war, or whether they wanted to win—either way, the public acknowledged that this was a war—not a negotiation; not a diplomatic action, and not particularly a defense of American democracy.

Another feature of this section are the actual words of Lyndon Johnson on multiple occasions. This narrative isn’t particularly kind to Johnson—after all, it’s not about his social liberalism on the domestic front, but about his rather hawkish behavior abroad. The book really highlights just how incredibly sexual Johnson’s public comments were. I had heard some of them before (he’s quite inappropriately quotable), but his comparison of infiltration and bombing of the north to seduction and rape was disturbing.

One of the questions that was raised for me, and remains unanswered, is this: what were the actual intentions of Johnson, or the US advisors? And furthermore, what was there understanding of the conflict 10, 20, 30 years later? This is the stuff of biography, and sometimes autobiography—but even if I were to read these, I think I would remain skeptical. I would like to know if the people involved really believed what they were selling to Congress and the American public, and I would like to know if their opinions changed. If so, when and why? But personal motives and the interior life are extremely difficult to locate. Anyone who is living has something to gain or lose through his story, and there’s really no way of knowing the interior regions of the heart.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Vietnam Wars, 1954-1962

These two chapters deal with a myriad of failures. First, there is the complete failure to implement any of the agreements made at the Geneva Conference. There is the sham election in the south, which puts the always unpopular and often difficult Diem in charge of South Vietnam. And then there is the willful ignorance and deliberate misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict by American strategists.

Here, in these two chapters, the tone of the book probably begins to irritate some critics. However, to those who’d cry bias, I would say that the story told here corresponds well with the modern history of Vietnam that I learned, in Vietnam. And that’s as it should be. The American story has been told countless times, in multiple ways: the stories of the American forces, the stories of policy and state department decision-making. Here we have a view of all the parts—not just the American story, but the Vietnamese story, which includes Diem’s government, ARVN, the NLF, and all the other groups and unaligned residents of the country.

And Young does not only skewer the Americans for their absurd strategy. But of course, the strategy is absurd. She notes that, even as they try to apply the Korean insurgency situation to Vietnam, they know that they misinterpreted Korea as well—that the insurgency was coming from within the south, and not only from the north. She also makes it very clear that Diem was no improvement over Bao Dai, in terms of the American choice for a puppet ruler (my words, not Young’s). Even as the Americans, with perhaps good and generous intentions, flood the south with building materials, goods and weapons, they are quickly squandered and appropriated by Diem’s corrupt officials.

Furthermore, neither Diem nor the Americans seem to be able to understand that each killing of a “Viet Cong” creates another NLF supporter from a previously unaligned citizen. As impossible as this is for me to believe, this strategy of removal appears to still be the basis of American foreign involvement (in Afghanistan or Iraq, for instance). Different, perhaps, is the ideological strength of the NLF, and their ability to promote change from within—even within Diem’s government, even in Diem’s strategic hamlets. These changes include land reforms and education for both genders—which makes it much easier for me (personally) to feel more positively towards the NLF than say, the Taliban. Nevertheless, Young’s blunt assessment of our mistakes in Vietnam really ought to inform our modern government-building strategies, if not end them altogether.

Ho Chi Minh's residence, 1958-1969 (MEW, 1996)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Vietnam Wars, 1946-1954

This chapter takes us from the end of the 40s, through to 1954, with a special emphasis on Dienbienphu. Once again, Young’s focus is the obtuseness about, and sometimes the willful ignorance of the west concerning the situation in Vietnam. She also has written several lines, scattered throughout the chapter, which painfully, searingly illustrate this early conflict in ways that few political histories do—and certainly would have been sidestepped by narratives opting for a more “objective” view.

Several problems are intersecting, causing US involvement in the first place. Following the end of WWII, the US is caught up in the restoration of Europe, and in this case France, at any cost—even though that means supporting a colonial regime which the US, at least ideologically, cannot condone. I wondered what was keeping the French presence in Indochina, since it seemed like it would have been all expenditure, with very little economic return. As it turns out, the French were concerned that releasing this one country would lead to a loss of control in their other, more profitable colonies, especially Algeria and Morocco. While this alone would have mattered little to the US, the Americans probably saw a rising expenditure on France, and the possible loss of raw materials traded in the west. These economic reasons were driving US interest and support of French troops, some of which (Young points out) were former Nazi soldiers.

There was also a growing US paranoia of communism. While this book can’t devote much space to this issue, it is a puzzling one. While there is already a history of American fear of communism prior to the 1940s, it still seems strange that the US could fail to see Ho’s continual appeals to the US as anything but an attempt to secure help from a nation he wanted to emulate. The Viet Minh connection to the Soviets, and later to China, was borne out of US blindness and refusal to acknowledge a nationalist, independence movement in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the US is looking, rather shiftily, at ways around both the French colonial and the Viet Minh rule of Indochina. Here is where we intersect with Pyle, Graham Greene’s dangerous innocent from the state department. While Pyle is a fiction, his idea of a third force is very much a reality to the United States. While it is interesting to sit back and wonder at the decisions of the US state department and military, I find that it’s easy enough to envision being the dangerous innocent in this scenario: Pyle was a product of irrational political and strategic thinking, dressed up as rationality, and enough people in the US were convinced of this—enough to make it a reality.

The chapter ends with the French loss at Dienbienphu, and Young includes some very strong lines from people who were there, about how the heroism of the French in battle was no answer to the (less militarily strong) Vietnamese, who were fighting for an ideal. Furthermore, Young has included General Navarre’s 1953 map, which shows French-controlled and Viet Minh territories, and the situation seems stark, in general. French Hanoi, for instance, is surrounded on all sides by entirely Viet Minh territory (save the Tonkin coastline), and for a moment, can’t you envision yourself as a French citizen, trapped and perpetually at risk?

What this chapter suggests to me, in this initial reading, is that the United States were attempting to think strategically, with increasingly complex goals which were mostly economic in nature. The economic and strategic goals were almost entirely new (based on a new economy) and untested, and required delicate and constant control of everyone involved. It is amazing that the results weren’t even more disastrous than they were. Should the United States have acted based on its foundational principles instead (such as self-government or decolonization), the US might have avoided a long conflict in Southeast Asia, and it would have been unlikely that the Vietnamese would have closely aligned themselves with either the Soviets or the Chinese communist party. But historical speculation is a dangerous thing—it is reminiscent of hubris.

Halong Bay; it was like swimming in bathwater (MEW, 1996)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Vietnam Wars, first installment

I'll be posting, in the coming weeks, about the readings I'm doing for three different fields: 20th century US, China, and public history. In all three fields, there are some common themes I'd like to address: human experience as addressed through literature, museums, historic sites, and art. And of course, there are some general readings expected for all three fields. I'm posting today about one of the core readings for the US field: Marilyn Young's The Vietnam Wars.

The Vietnam Wars begins prior to 1945, as is appropriate. As with most subjects, no event or circumstance can exist without its historical context. Of course, an author needs to make choices about where to begin and end the narrative. Often these choices determine the message of the book, and in Young’s case, the message is this: while Americans often perceive the Vietnam War (or conflict) as occurring during a discrete period in 1960s and 70s, ending with the withdrawal of American troops in 1974, it is a misunderstanding of the conflict to limit it to these years. Furthermore, American involvement in Vietnam predates the war by (arguably) five decades, and postdates the war until at least the 1990s. Young is also writing at the cusp of the first Gulf War, without knowing the future of our continuing involvement in the Middle East, and so she mentions a possible comparison without full knowledge of just how prescient that comparison might be.

At any rate, it makes sense for Young to mention the politics in Southeast Asia in the first half of the 20th century—particularly Vietnam’s status as a French colony, and Nguyen Ai Quoc’s (Ho Chi Minh’s) appeal to Woodrow Wilson (and America) for self-determination following World War I. The failure of this, and the subsequent French, Vichy French and Japanese suppression of the Vietnamese, bringing us through to World War II, explains or demonstrates several things. First, it demonstrates the ambivalence of American politics and ideals concerning colonies and decolonization. Second, it explains the Vietnamese turn to Soviet-style socialism and the writings of Lenin—but also explains why not all of the Soviet socialist ideas would work in a Vietnamese revolution. Finally, Young’s narrative illustrates the bloody and complicated conflict that was occurring contemporaneously with the more well-known events of World War II, and which are somehow not part of the general American consciousness of world events.

Obligatory photograph of Hanoi, taken by MEW in 1996

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Zen and the Art of... part two

Alright, onward to the Chautauquas I mentioned in the last post about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And when I’m done here, I had better get to reading and blogging about the history books in my fields. I mean, priorities…

Even though the general tone of the book put me off, I was intrigued by Pirsig’s discussion of Quality. He arrives at this particular Chautauqua while he, Chris, John and Sylvia Sutherland are traveling through Montana. When they stop to visit an artist-friend, DeWeese, Pirsig uncovers more of this mysterious persona which he used to be: Phaedrus. Phaedrus taught at the university years ago, and there’s some rather cryptic discussion of what happened to him then, and why he left the place. Rather than dwell on the mundane reasons for this, Pirsig begins to recall his classes in Quality. Specifically, he remembers trying, and failing, to define Quality in writing, despite the fact that it is the accepted belief that you need a definition in order to teach it—particularly to the students, who clearly expect in Phaedrus an authority figure to imitate.

Phaedrus has a fundamental problem with imitation. Likewise, he sees a certain “squareness” in the attempt to define Quality. And finally, among his students, he notices that the drive to acquire grades, and the drive to imitate are inextricably linked. In order to put an end to this cycle of imitation for grades, he does two things: he asks his students to write about objects or concepts that would be impossible to imitate (such as their own hand), and he eliminates grades, at least until the end of the class. The faculty and the students often react negatively, and the negative response is no doubt due to the fact that all of this is happening before the advent of postmodernism. Even the publication of this book is just on the cusp of it—so these concepts must seem very new indeed.

However, there are pieces of this Quality inquiry which seem still to apply to academia, even in a post-postmodernist age. The first has to do with grades. Really, very little has changed about the student response to grading since Pirsig wrote the book. Children who work for grades become adults who work for grades—and they are aware that imitation provides the best possible chance for an A. Innovation can earn anything from an A to an F. A product of both graded and ungraded education, I feel confident in saying that ungraded education was far superior for me, as Phaedrus hypothesized. Because the drive for learning is internal, and innovation goes unpunished, a true student has an opportunity to push the boundaries of education. Of course, as Phaedrus finds, the unmotivated student simply does not know what to do. However, he speculates, perhaps these folks should not be students.

The second piece of the discussion that still resonates has to do with internal divisions in the faculty, and between the faculty and the administration in the university, or The Church of Reason. Faculty may be guarded about new methods, or unwilling to encourage innovation among students—and this I’ve witnessed again and again myself. I’ve written before about the disconnect between the shockingly innovative writing that we read in class, and the very cautious, careful, and “objective” work we are expected to produce. But some of this professional cautiousness also comes from a guardedness against administrations, who see the university not as a Church of Reason, but as a business venture. And that attitude certainly exists, and is probably more prevalent now than it was when Zen was published.

To keep this post from being absurdly long, I will hold back my final comments on the book for a third post.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Zen and the Art of... part one

Over the years, many have recommended Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I kept putting it on the back burner, until a friend mentioned in passing a remark made by a U of C professor in the book, “We are not here to learn what you think . . . we are here to learn what Aristotle thinks!” Because he mentioned it, and because it involved thinly disguised professors from the U of C, I decided to give it a shot. It was not quite what I expected. I can’t say that I particularly like the book, but there are some interesting moments—and a number of moments which were provoking enough to warrant a journal entry.

I started the book at nearly the end, having skimmed through it looking for references to the University. So I started with Phaedrus’s experience at the U of C, and followed it to the end, and then decided that I’d better start from the beginning and work towards the middle. However, no matter where you start, Pirsig’s consciousness (written as the narrator) and the experiences of Phaedrus intersect. It doesn’t take long to discover that a large part of the book is grappling with mental illness, most likely schizophrenia, and what happened after electroshock treatment. “Phaedrus,” in other words, is Pirsig before treatment, and a large portion of the book is devoted to Pirsig’s journey to recover this lost person. I almost wish I had known that going into the book, because I had rather a different expectation.

Possibly, the book is interpretable in several ways, and different people choose to take away different elements. Ultimately, this exploration of mental illness is more interesting to me than a series of Chautauquas about technology, quality, classicism and romanticism, rhetoric and dialectic. However, I believe this is for what the book is really known. This set me off right from the start—not the Chautauquas themselves, because I like to think about troublesome topics—but the author’s need to force them on other people, especially his own family, and particularly his son Chris. There’s an honesty to the presentation, though. Pirsig seems to be aware of the problem, but can’t stop himself. This makes the narrator unlikable, to me, and I find I’m frustrated with what I see as self-absorption and spotty parenting.

Pirsig recognizes in Chris the beginnings of mental illness (possibly—I see mostly anxiety in his portrayal of Chris, and none of the mania or delusions that he hints at with Phaedrus). He also sees some of Chris’s posturing, “YMCA egoism,” and other behavior that troubles him. Pirsig’s method for dealing with this is puzzling—but I’m also aware that the relationship between fathers and sons is often a bit of a war. On the other hand, Pirsig seems only to reinforce some of the same values that he claims to dislike.

Generally speaking, the readers and recommenders of Zen have been men. I wondered, while reading, if there is a gender difference in both the interpretation of the book, and also enjoyment of the book—much like there is for The Giving Tree. (Incidentally, if you want to know why many women loathe The Giving Tree, I will explain in the comments) At any rate, it occurred to me that perhaps some fellows might identify with Pirsig, Chris, Phaedrus, or all three of them. While I often identify with men in literature, I can’t identify with these men. And perhaps the people who like this book have less of a problem with a sort of aggressive pedagogic tone.

I’d planned to write a little about the Chautauquas themselves, as there is quite a bit of philosophy in this book, but I think I’ll have to devote a second post to that. I’d also like to discuss in further depth the segment of the book I liked the most: Phaedrus’s experiments with Quality, and the absence of grades. And the Church of Reason. Perhaps this segment resonates with me right now, just as I’m back inside an institution that drives me crazy (academia, of course). Read onward, then, in the next post.

Monday, June 14, 2010

This is how you make me angry

In one recent email, informing me and a bunch of other folks that we won't be interviewed for a $9/hr job, the writer feels it necessary to include this final paragraph (as if the rejection itself weren't enough):

(and at the risk of being an obnoxious advice giver, I'd like to just make sure that your luck is supported by what I think is the best book ever for job hunting -- _What Color Is Your Parachute_ by Richard
Bolles. It stood me well over my twenty-three years as a software engineer, but never better than when I got laid off from my last software job, before I came to work here.)

Yes, yes, we know that you have employment, and are happy in your employment. But I guarantee you that 100% of the people who applied for your part-time, $9/hr job are just trying to eat, not trying to find their life's career. Frankly, the color of my parachute is professional history, which I happen to be pursuing while also trying to eat. And to be honest, the bank, and the electric company, and the grocery store do not care about my dreams. They care about how much cash is in my account. And if you, dear writer, could have seen my parachute when your email reached me, you would have seen that it was purple with rage, and so it's best that you were nowhere near my parachute. However, a few days have passed, and I'm back to mood-ring blue again.

Also, while I was perusing Craigslist, I came across this interesting post:

Proect Manager (Western Mass/Ct/Vt)

Engineer Architect with significant project management experience - Part time position, may lead to full time. Individual must have at least 20 years of large scale project management experience. Green or LEED projects desired. Health center/Medical/ School experience also preferred.. Please send resume/references/and availability

You will notice that the poster missed the "j" in project, put two periods after preferred, and no period after availability. All this, and there's really very little detail about the kind of work being offered here anyway. What eats at me about these posts is that someone with questionable basic writing skills is posting an ad that requests 20 years of experience in a highly specialized area which requires higher education. There's just something wrong with that.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bittersweet dream at airport gate 712

I dreamed I was at the airport, maybe LAX, waiting for my flight to China. There was a long layover. The airport didn't really look like LAX (it didn't really look like any airport I've been to, but it was more European, maybe closest in style to Zurich) but Los Angeles would make sense as a stopover to China. I was either at gate 712, or the flight was scheduled to take off at 7:12 in the evening, or both.

艾恺 was there. I saw him wandering around, waiting for the same flight. We stopped and talked really briefly. I said, "you're back from China?"

He said, "no, I'm going." Liang Shuming was still alive, and 恺 was going to see him for some vaguely diplomatic reason. He told me what Liang had said about his meeting with President Obama, and how it differed in the extreme from Obama's press release about the meeting--and in short, it made Obama look bad. I think the upshot was that Liang was basically accusing Obama of aligning himself with corporations who had interest in China. I was really disappointed.

For some reason I told 恺 that I was going to Italy. Maybe because 恺 is Italian, or it just got all screwy in my head. Anyway, we parted, but when I discovered that we still had hours before the flight, I tried to find him again, to ask if we could just take a stroll and talk. I really needed to talk to someone, and I guess the dream was reminding me that I was lonely, and that I miss 恺 too, for reasons I can't entirely explain. I woke up feeling wistful.