Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reading Questions, 1 (French Rev)

...for Wed, Feb 3: the French Cultural Revolution.
Remember: you are expected to turn in a written response to one of these questions at the start of class.

1. In our readings, the first proposal for calendar reform is by an educator (Romme), the second is by a poet (Fabre d’Eglantine). What is the key difference between the two proposals? Why was the poet so concerned with finding evocative images to go with each new month?

2. What was the Festival of the Supreme Being designed to do? Did it Enlightenment ideals?

3. How would you characterize the position women are supposed to play in the Festival of the Supreme Being? Why do you think the organizers were so concerned with mothers, with regulating the numbers of women, and so on?

4. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke opposes the new government-system in France, all created “from scratch” at one time and based on abstract principles, to the government (what he calls “constitution”) of England. The English constitution, he says, is rooted in “the method of nature in the conduct of the state.” What does he mean by nature? According to him, what is natural, and what unnatural, in a government?

5. Everybody is in favor of the universal “rights of man,” right? The French Revolutionaries made their Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen a core element of the new French state. What’s Burke’s problem with this idea? (see 438 ff)

6. What is the political significance of the fact that, as Burke claims on p. 442, “the age of chivalry is gone”?

7. Does Tom Paine’s response to Burke’s attacks on the French Revolution succeed in defending the kind of revolutionary cultural activity we see in the revolutionaries’ calendar reform and in their festivals?

Finally: note that when Burke refers to "the states" in France, he's referring to the system of three social "estates" in pre-Revolutionary France (1. Catholic clergy, 2. nobility, and 3. the people) that found political form in The Estates General. So the "tiers etat" means "the people."

Enlightened Bodies I: Machine Men & Automatic Animals

English edition of Man a Machine by La Mettrie

In the 17th C. the French philosopher Rene Descartes (of "I think therefore I am" fame) had posited that animals were nothing more than complex machines. In the following century, Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751) dared to take this a step further. The publication of his text Man a Machine (L'homme machine) in 1748 was just the beginning of a writing career that would eventually cause him to flee first France, then Holland to the waiting arms of the tolerant "enlightened despot" Frederick the Great of Prussia.

19th C. photograph of Vaucanson's duck, it was destroyed in 1879.
Notice the enormous drum portion of the mechanism.

Vaucanson's other automata, a flute-player and a drum-player, flank the famous duck.

Human beings have been making mechanical reproductions of living things since classical Greece. But it was in the Age of Enlightenment that the mechanistic metaphors of biology and the ingenuity of early roboticists converged. The greatest of all 18th C. automaton-makers (automaton is the earlier word for robot) was Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) - born the same year as La Mettrie! His mechanical duck and clock-work musicians were the toast of the philosophes and an increasingly technologically interested public. Soon automatic animals and musicians could be found throughout the great European capitals, further strengthening the connection between the idea that living things were merely God's (or Nature's) machines and that human kind were getting closer and closer to re/creating life through the cleverness of their mechanical knowledge.

The Silver Swan, made sometime in the mid 18th C. by John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) is still performing for delighted audiences at the Bowes Museum in County Durham, England. It was already over a hundred years old when Mark Twain saw it and was amazed. The creature rests on glass rods which resemble the shimmering surface of a pond. Watch as it bends to pluck a golden fish from the artificial pond and swallows it whole. Imagine what this must have been like to 18th and 19th C. eyes!

La Joueuse de Tympanon is tiny automaton-percussionist contemporary with Vaucanson's creations. She was made especially for Queen Marie Antoinette. Though not life-size, this automaton is never-the-less a marvel to behold. Like the duck, she sits atop an enormous constellation of interconnected mechanical parts which create the subtle movements of her hammer-holding hands. The figure of the automaton will begin to play a greater role in the European imagination. In the Romantic period, clockwork bodies (especially female) become a trope of what Freud will name "the uncanny"- but more about this later in the course.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Enlightened Music II: The Sounds of Glass

Late 18th./early 19th C. glass harmonica

You've probably run the tips of your fingers around the edge of a wine-glass to produce sound. When the level of liquid is changed so is the note that emanates from the glass. This phenomenon was known for centuries (maybe millenia) but it wasn't until the 18th. C that the idea really took off in the realm of professional performance. Benjamin Franklin is believed to have been the inventor of the glass harmonica in its current form: a series of glass bowls on a spindle set within an upright case resembling a piano. Over a hundred composers from the Age of Enlightenment wrote music for Franklin's invention.

The sound is eerie and ethereal and some of Franklin's contemporaries believed it was also dangerous, especially to those with melancholy dispositions:

"There may be various reasons for the scarcity of armonica players, principally the almost universally shared opinion that playing it is damaging to the health, that it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that it is an apt method for slow self-annihilation… Many (physicians with whom I have discussed this matter) say the sharp penetrating tone runs like a spark through the entire nervous system, forcibly shaking it up and causing nervous disorders."

- Friedrich Rochlitz, 1798

It is interesting that Rochlitz describes the sounds' effect on the nerves in the language of electricity, another "discovery" of the Age of Enlightenment and one closely tied to the glass harmonica's creator Benjamin Franklin. One can sense how close we're getting to the modern description/understanding of electro-chemical biological processes.

Listen to the short piece below written for glass harmonica by none other than Mozart. Of course, if you're melancholy by nature, you may want to skip it.

Enlightened Music I: The Symbols of Light

Tamino charmsthe wild beasts, Act I scene xv, from The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-91, c.1793 NOTE: In this scene the power of music is used to charm "wild creatures". Do you sense that artist is merging ideas about animals and "savage" peoples? Is there a racial/civilizational discourse going on here? Notice the three words over the doorways behind Tamino- in German these say REASON (Vernunft), WISDOM (Weisheit/h) and NATURE (Natur).

"Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."
William Congreve, English dramatist (1670 - 1729)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Magic Flute (1791) is a fairy tale with decidedly Enlightenment underpinnings. After passing through many ordeals, two pairs of lovers (Tamino and Pamina, Papageno and Papagena) are finally reunited. The powers of superstition and darkness are driven out by the powers of rationality and light. Mozart and his librettist were both Freemasons and believed that mankind was on an evolutionary journey toward perfection. Here is the final scene of the opera in which the lovers find one another, the Queen of the Night is vanquished and reason, right and light triumph. Ah- Enlightenment hope springs eternal!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The History of Words, The History of Culture

Last semester Prof. Martin introduced me to two wonderful books: What is Cultural History? by Peter Burke and Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams. Both men are highly regarded historians of modernity and excellent writers.

What I like most about these two texts is that they pack so much relevant and clearly presented information into so few pages. Burke follows the course of cultural history as it develops through the convergence of many disciplines. He also provides a handy year by year listing of the most famous examples of the genre. Williams has created a short encyclopedia of cultural "buzz words". He shows where these words originated and how they've changed (sometimes in surprising and even drastic ways) over time and through usage.

If you are intrigued by how the notion of cultural history has evolved in the last century and if you want to see just how strange the course of a word can be as it metamorphoses and winds its way through the centuries, I heartily recommend both books.

Take a gander at 'em over at Google Books!

Lighten Up (and have another cup)

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Solvitur Ambulando (lat.) "it is solved by walking"

It was nice to have Kant's walking metaphor for learning pointed out in last night's class. The metaphors an author uses can probably tell us a lot about them and the world in which they move.

I really enjoyed the communal reading of Kant's "What is Enlightenment". It was the second time I'd sat down with this particular text. During the last hour of class I realized that having the input of so many other people was incredibly helpful- Kant's NOT EASY! I'll be rereading it a few more times this week. Meanwhile, I wanted to post some things that might be helpful (and inspiring) as we consider the period known to English speakers as The Enlightenment, to German speakers as Die Aufklarung, and to the French as L'Eclaircissement.

Here are three links providing general background information on the Enlightenment.

Several universities have made lectures on history available to the general public. You can even download them to your Ipod. This is a great way to brush up on certain topics and/or supplement current coursework.

Early 18th C. coffee house in London

The coffee house came up last night. Did you know that there are some scholars that contend that caffeine (and other stimulants like chocolate and tobacco) may have played a very important role in fueling the Enlightenment? Could bio-chemistry have played a role in rocketing Europe into industrial-colonialist hyper-drive? It's an interesting idea. At any rate, getting together to discuss ideas was a major aspect of Enlightenment culture.

The coffee house is one famous meeting place of the Enlightenment but so is the SALON. In the private homes of the rich, the powerful and highly educated, philosophers and society big-shots would meet to preen themselves, trade barbs and sharpen each others' wits. Wealthy, aristocratic women played an especially important role in hosting these salons and in lending their support to the famous thinkers and artists of the day.

For a HILARIOUS peek into what an 18th century salon may have been like watch this clip from the 1992 film Orlando by Sally Potter. It's based on the 1928 novel by Virgina Woolf. The lead character is a man born in Elizabethan England who lives for 400 years, changing into a woman along the way. Woolf uses this gender bending time-traveler to comment on the norms and forms of culture across the centuries. In this particular scene the "Lady Orlando" arrives at a very snobby, afternoon salon. She is greeted by the sparkling (and sexist) witticisms of two famed "enlightened" men of the day: Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.

  • What elements do you think the director has accentuated in this scene to play up the ideas of the Enlightenment? Based on what you know about the period can we say that there are distinctly Enlightenment cultural concepts clearly visible in this vignette?

A more serious, but no less entertaining scene, from the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons. The movie is based on Christopher Hampton's contemporary play, which in turn is based on the scandalous 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Listen closely to what the Marquise de Merteuil has to say to her former lover Valmont about how she "educated herself".

  • The Marquise speaks of many things: society, gender roles, self-invention, philosophy, detachment, deception and the control of desire. "It wasn't pleasure I was after, it was knowledge... I distilled everything into one wonderfully simple principle: win or die." What can this tell us about the cultural structures of the period and how women (in this case upper-class women) were able to maneuver through a man's world? Has the Enlightenment given the Marquise more freedom or is she simply learning how to exercise more power within her gilded prison? Does this reflect or illustrate anything in the reading by Kant from our first class?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Welcome to Recovered Aura

George Grosz. The City. 1916/17. Oil on canvas. 100 x 102cm Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid, Spain.

This blog is intended to be a companion site and informational suppliment to the History 348 course taught by Prof. Ben Martin. It will consist both of visual and musical examples of European cultural productions from the French Revolution to the present. It will also include short explanatory entries and links to online information sources pertinent to the topics under discussion.

As a history student myself, I find that my own understanding of the past is deepened and enriched by accessing source materials such as music, film and other kinds of non-textual cultural productions. In my experience these things bring history to life by stimulating the senses and inviting one to consider historical subjects in a fresh way.

Our blog takes its name from philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Benjamin believed that the modern processes of endlessly reproducing images and artifacts had destroyed the special, almost magical quality contained in older forms of art which were unique, original and, as we would say now "one-offs". He called this ineffable quality of specialness "the aura". According to this theory modern people feel a sense of loss because they live inside a culture of mass production and endless replication. This specialness, this "aura" is no longer a part of the daily experiences of modern people.

Many historians and philosophers have argued that the modern world is one in which the individual is cut off from his or her roots and at the same time flooded with an endless variety of choices. It is of course much more complicated than this, but the image of countless conflicting elements floating on a sea of change does seem to be one good description of the modern condition.

I hope that "Recovered Aura" will be a place where we can discover new things about history and the processes and experiences of this strange thing we call "modernity". It's important to realize that there is always more to learn, always new angles from which to approach these topics and great value in asking questions- no matter how big or how small.

This is a place where we should feel safe about asking questions and offering insights.
I want to keep this blog an open forum so that we can learn from and inspire one another as we explore the topics offered up for contemplation and discussion by Prof. Martin in the course.

Feel free to post your observatons, questions, and the interesting links that you find online in the comments section. Let's strive to keep our online conversations respectful and, even when we have differences of opinion, engaged in a spirit of community- of learning from one another.

I look forward to learning along with you,
Jason Lahman, Teaching Assistant and fellow student, History 348