March 12, 2011

Occidentalist History

Reading John Pocock's work on Gibbon, I came across an observation about the history of the West that I think is worth repeating. What Pocock argues is that the conquest of America represented a huge challenge to Western models of history. Smith, Robertson and the other Scots for example developed models of human progress that depended upon economic stages- from shepherd to farmer to citizen- which did not make as much sense in the Americas. The European thinkers believed that civilisation was impossible without the domestication of hoofed animals: this is a belief that makes sense in the old world- from Britain in the West to China in the East- but did not translate well into the Americas. Consequently Pocock shows that the eighteenth century thinkers developed the concept of a savage: who stood in America, outside of the procession of civilisation. Obviously this has massive unpleasant consequences: to state that someone cannot develop justifies all sorts of racism and abuse. It also had huge consequences for Western thought: it cannot be an accident that Rousseau and Diderot about this time, in different ways, enthused the concept of the savage with a new nobility. Both of the French philosophes used the concept to mount a counterfactual challenge to European hypocrisy and civilisation. It is an interesting reflection that amongst the consequences of the discovery of America is the development of socialism in Europe: but it may well be true. It does show that the history of occidentalism- the image in the Old World of the New- is as important as the history of Orientalism (Proffessor Said's creation). The former has a lot to contribute to the way that we understand how they understood the world around them.

March 06, 2011

Brother can you spare a dime

I just thought I'd draw everyone's attention to a radio program about one of the great songs of the thirties- Brother can you spare a Dime. First heard on Rudy Vallee's radio program in 1932 (two weeks before Roosevelt was elected), or at least first heard on broadcast there, it was performed by performer after performer- Ad Colson did one version which is on youtube and Bing Crosby's is on my ipod. It gets into the context of the song- that most of the men in the Great Depression had fought in the Great War. That generation was one of those generations that seem to be afflicted by all the slings and arrows that fortune might throw at them: in their twenties they fought in the Trenches, in their forties they were sacked from their jobs and in their fifties they watched their sons go off to war. Its a fantastic program which strays into discussing the difference between Vallee's version and Crosby's version- the music of the twenties and the thirties and also the opposition between that and other songs of the Depression, particularly the fantastic 1933 song from Golddiggers, 'We're in the Money'. The latter is worth appreciating in its youtube version.

Contrast that with Brother can you spare a Dime, written a year earlier and in a version which the radio program doesn't include.

And you can see quite how shocking the latter's sentiments were.