Sunlit Water

December 31, 2007

Checking In

Filed under: Food,Personal,Urban Living — by teofilo @ 4:25 pm

It seems those no-good fuckers at Starbucks, in league with the even-less-good fuckers at T-Mobile, have started to charge for their wireless, leading me to completely waste a couple bucks on their shitty coffee before I discovered a better coffee place further down the same block that has actual food in addition to free wireless.

In other news, UnfoggeDCon was delightful, I have no internet access at the place where I’m staying, and I’ll have to be heading back there soon, so I probably won’t be around online for another day or two.  Just so you know.

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December 27, 2007

And I’m Off

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 11:39 pm

I leave for DC at 8:00 tomorrow morning and will be there for a week.  My internet access there might be a little limited, ironically enough, so posting here may (continue to) be infrequent for a while.

December 25, 2007

Feliz Navidad

Filed under: Culture,Personal — by teofilo @ 1:36 am

AWB is not a fan of Christmas.  I’ve gone back and forth on the subject myself; as a kid I was constantly frustrated by the Christian hegemony implied by the omnipresence of Christmas, but recently I’ve decided that since Christmas was only barely Christian to begin with and is now primarily a celebration of secular consumerism it’s not really much of a threat and there’s no problem with enjoying it as it is.  When I was growing up we would celebrate it to some extent, but always by visiting my dad’s family, which is culturally Christian but not at all religious and quite happy to go along with our desire to take the Christ out of Christmas.

What I’ve realized this year, and several people I’ve discussed this with have agreed, is that the Christmas season is actually a lot more fun if you don’t really celebrate Christmas than if you do.  Christians are always so stressed out by all the obligations they have, and throughout the month of December I hear them complain that they haven’t gotten all their shopping done and they need to put up their lights and they hope they can find a nice enough tree and so on and so forth.  It’s really a lot of work and stress, and for a lot of people it seems to totally overwhelm the nice feelings of peace and togetherness that seem to really be the point of the holiday.  For those of us who don’t have any of those obligations, however, there’s no stress at all and we can just sit back and enjoy all the pretty lights and nice cookies and days off of work.  It’s very nice, and seems to be one reason that quite a lot of Jews, including me, actually quite like Christmas as it is celebrated in America today.

On that note, I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, regardless of whether or how they celebrate it.  In my opinion, at least, it really is the most wonderful time of the year.

December 24, 2007

Capital City

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 4:19 pm

I’m in Santa Fe visiting my sister for Christmas.  It’s cold.  I went out today and took some pictures of her neighborhood.

December 22, 2007

More Pictures

Filed under: Urban Living — by teofilo @ 5:34 pm

This time of the residential parts of my neighborhood.

December 17, 2007

Unearthly Paradise

Filed under: Culture,Politics — by teofilo @ 11:23 pm

I finished reading O Brave New People: The European Invention of the American Indian on Saturday. It’s an interesting book, written by two art historians, about the iconography of “America” and the “Indian” in early modern European art (particularly book illustrations) and how these images, and indeed the very concepts they portray, were almost entirely indebted to Classical and Medieval European prototypes and had little to do with the actual lands and peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

The two authors are John F. Moffitt, professor of art history emeritus at New Mexico State University, and Santiago Sebastián, professor of art history at the Universidad Literaria de Valencia in Spain, who apparently died while the book was in press.  The introduction explains that Moffitt was solely responsible for the first two chapters (of five), which deal mainly with the Classical and Medieval literary sources for the iconography of the New World, especially the persistent myth of the Earthly Paradise (i.e., Eden), commonly thought to be located in India (sometimes specifically placed on the island of Sri Lanka) and described as such in such popular Medieval writings as romances about Alexander the Great and memoirs of actual or reputed travelers to the Indies.  He makes a convincing case that this is what Columbus was actually searching for, although he makes this conclusion sound a lot more original than I suspect it actually is (who doesn’t know that Columbus was actually looking for India?), and that he claimed to have found it in several places over the course of his voyages, the latest at the mouth of the Orinoco River on the northern coast of South America.

These two opening chapters are interesting, and essential for understanding the rest of the book, but Moffitt’s prose style is extremely florid and verbose, and he tends to repeat himself a lot.  As a result, these chapters drag a bit in places, and they could definitely have been a lot shorter with no loss of content.

The next two chapters deal with the actual iconography of America, starting with the illustrations of Columbus’s first letter describing his discoveries, published in 1493.  These chapters are based primarily on extensive research by Sebastián in European libraries, and many of the prints reproduced are extremely rare.  It’s not clear how much of the writing of the chapters was done by Sebastián as well, but certain parts show a lot of Moffitt’s distinctive style, so it seems likely that he had at least an editorial role here as well.

These chapters chronicle the evolution of images of Indians from the first scenes of peaceful naked “Indians” dwelling in a verdant paradise to the eventual development of the much more negative stereotypical image of the savage cannibal.  Although these two extremes, which Moffitt and Sebastián call the “Noble Savage” and “Ignoble Savage” respectively, track the historical process of initial excitement leading to bitter disillusion among the early settlers of the New World, one of the key messages of the book is that all of the elements of these images can be traced back to medieval (and even classical) literary tropes, especially those associated with the unknown peoples of Asia.  A key, perhaps the key, source here is the hugely popular fourteenth-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville (which Moffitt and Sebastián take to be entirely spurious, although my impression was that this was an issue of some controversy), in which can be found nearly all the characteristics, both positive and negative, later applied to American Indians being applied to the (East) Indians that Mandeville purportedly traveled among.  Columbus had clearly read this book, as had Amerigo Vespucci, whose much more colorful tales of vicious cannibalistic natives were immensely more popular in Europe than Columbus’s earnest, pious descriptions and had a much greater effect on the development of the “Indian” as a concept in the European psyche.  Note whose name ended up being applied to the new continents.

The fifth chapter, a collaboration between the two authors, brings this all together with a more historically oriented account of how these literary and iconographic tropes, once developed, played out over the course of the actual conquest of the Americas.  The story gets a bit hard to follow at points, but I thought this chapter was the most interesting part of the book, and some of the tangents it goes off onto, such as the anti-Spanish Black Legend promoted by Protestant printers using the writings of Las Casas, are fascinating.

This is ultimately a book with a message.  It was published shortly after the botched quincentenary celebration in 1992, and within that context the authors try to show that the images of “America” and “Indians” which have proved enormously powerful and influential down to the present day, to the immense detriment of the lands and people they purport to describe, have their origins not in careful geographical or anthropological examination of the New World but in age-old literary conventions having nothing to do with America and its reality and everything to do with Europe and its psyche.  At the end they are hopeful that this work can start people on the path to developing a new, more accurate and useful, iconography of America and its indigenous inhabitants.  It’s a noble goal, but I doubt it will prove very effective.  One little book isn’t much use in overcoming five hundred years of accumulated cultural baggage.

December 15, 2007

Deluge

Filed under: Dating,Personal — by teofilo @ 4:43 pm

So, um, after all that time when I was lonely and couldn’t seem to meet any girls I now have several quite promising prospects, some from OkCupid and others that I met in the course of my everyday life.  One thing that I’ve realized recently is that what I really want, and felt like I wasn’t getting enough of before, is attention from women (rather than sex or love specifically), and I now have more of that than I know what to do with, and as a result am much happier.  Knowing that I have other options does a lot to lessen the pressure I feel when I’m with any one girl, because I know that the stakes are lower and that if things don’t work out with her it’s not the end of the world.  As a result, I’m more relaxed and confident.

The potential problem with these circumstances is my general indecisiveness, which could be problematic at some point down the road if some of these things start to get more serious.  Of course, it’s likely that many of them will end up not working out fairly early on, restricting my options later (which is a good thing), but if more than one ends up getting pretty serious I may have something of a dilemma on my hands, which leads me to a question.  What’s the protocol for telling these girls about each other?  Should I do it early on, wait until things start to get serious, not bother and figure I’ll be down to just one soon enough, or what?

December 9, 2007

For Stanley

Filed under: Urban Living — by teofilo @ 5:55 pm

Some pictures I took today of downtown Albuquerque.

December 8, 2007

Marty Drops Out

Filed under: Politics — by teofilo @ 3:05 pm

Now here‘s some good news.  Udall would most likely have won the primary anyway, but a hard-fought Democratic primary is the last thing we need right now, and this gives him more time to focus on the general (where his opponent will almost certainly be Heather Wilson).

Domenici’s retirement has resulted in a major shakeup of New Mexico congressional politics, since all three of the state’s representatives are running for his seat, freeing up their current seats.  Udall’s seat is a virtual lock for the Democrats, while Wilson’s seat is a very good pickup opportunity; the first district is very close to a 50-50 split between the parties, and Wilson has only been able to pull off several very close victories by a combination of her considerable political skills and the weak opponents the Democrats have thrown at her.  Now that she’s out, though, there aren’t any other Republicans with anything like her popularity or savvy and the GOP’s general unpopularity these days gives the Democrats a good shot at taking the seat.  Pearce’s seat, on the other hand, will be easy for the Republicans to hold on to.  The southern part of the state is very close to Texas both physically and politically.

December 1, 2007

Forward, Not Backward

Filed under: Culture,Politics — by teofilo @ 9:37 pm

I finished 1491 today.  Overall it’s an excellent book, and I would readily recommend it to anyone and everyone.  It’s true that it lacks the carefully objective and cautious tone of most academic writing, especially on the controversial subjects it discusses, but this is really more a virtue than a shortcoming.  The things Mann is talking about are important, but the perspectives being taken in recent scholarship about them are not well-known to the general public, and one engaging, readable book about them is much better than a hundred dry articles in obscure journals.  As a journalist, Mann is not only a much better writer than all too many academics but also more inclined to privilege rhetorical effect over strict accuracy (though, to be fair, he is careful to indicate where he does this), both of which make it much easier for him to get his message across clearly.  And he does have a message; this book isn’t exactly a polemic, but it’s not a neutral report on a scholarly debate either.  Mann relates the opinions of both sides in various disputes with admirable fairness, but he is not shy about taking sides and putting forth his own conclusions.

His general message, which he expresses in the context of a few key issues of contention, is that the inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere in 1491 were more populous, more in control of their environment, and more firmly established in their places of habitation than scholars had assumed until recently, and that the general consensus of specialists in these areas supports those conclusions.  Since all of these issues have potential political implications as well, Mann offers clear (though sometimes rather general) prescriptions for how to integrate these new findings into policy decisions.  This is particularly important when it comes to the idea that the landscapes of the American “wilderness” (including Amazonia) are really not wild at all, but the result of careful maintenance by humans over the course of centuries or millennia, followed by massive ecological changes when European diseases decimated native populations.  Rather than concluding that this means they aren’t worth saving because they’re not “natural” (which seems rather absurd, but is apparently what some environmentalists worry will be the result of this research), that we should study those maintenance techniques for clues to how to manage those landscapes in our own time.  On the other issues he discusses, demography and the length of human habitation in the New World, policy implications going forward are a bit murkier, but the evidence does support a more humane attitude toward the indigenous people who are around today than is unfortunately common in many circles.

I find all this very congenial ideologically, and in fact I think Mann hits just the right note in his presentation of the politics of all this.  The key is not to endlessly squabble about the past and try to establish levels of blame; those issues detract from the real challenge, which is what to do now given what we now know about what the past was like.  A key element, perhaps the key element, in my political worldview for some time now has been that our goal as Americans should be to make this country as pleasant a place to live for its indigenous inhabitants as it was in 1491.  As this book shows, we’re still a long way from that goal.

Notwithstanding my overall positive impression, there are some small issues I have with the book.  Mann relies a lot on archaeology, which is necessary given the subject matter but also leads him to adopt some of the peculiarities of that discipline, some of which are rather problematic.  One of the most important, as he even quotes one scholar saying at one point but doesn’t seem to take to heart, is the assumption that what has been discovered is the sum total of what existed at a given time.  No archaeologist would agree with that as stated, of course, but it’s implicit in the way many of them (and hence Mann) talk about “the biggest x in the world at time y” or “the earliest z in the world.”  Since it is of course true that the vast majority of the world has not been and will never be excavated, absolute statements like this are misguided; a bigger x or older z could turn up at any moment.  This is part of what I meant above about putting rhetoric above facts.  It’s not really a problem overall, but I found it a bit irritating at times.

Another problematic tic of archaeologists that Mann adopts is a weirdly naive attitude toward linguistics.  Although it’s quite clear from those areas with long written histories that material culture and language cannot be assumed to correspond simply, New World archaeologists still quite commonly try to assign cultural complexes to the speakers of specific (proto-)languages.  Related to this is the tendency to take glottochronology seriously, even with caveats about its underlying assumptions, when it’s long been pretty much entirely discredited within linguistics.  Mann is more careful about this than many popularizing authors, but he still makes some unwarranted assumptions without properly qualification at times.

In spite of these minor issues, this is a very good and very readable book on an important subject, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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