A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for January 2005


schizmatic and I enjoyed CFTAG last Sunday, discussing a variety of topics. Since, this time, I actually took notes, I can reproduce a few of the major themes.

  • We began by talking about parallel networks in globalization, how all manner of transnational connections exist independently of Western-dominated paradigms, whether one talks about Hadrami migrants in Indonesia or quiet circles of underground carpet aficionados. Reality is messy.
  • Turtledove’s alternate-history fiction, always and increasingly frustrating, is good inasmuch as it tries to represent these networks. Demonstrating how, say, Québécois farmers or American working-class radicals react to historical changes is a good, human way of showing the impact of historical changes. Unfortunately, he does too much of it, resulting in the “Who are these people and why do I care?” syndrome.
  • Misinterpretations can be enormously productive, whether you’re talking about DNA and RNA copying errors in relation to natural selection, or the misinterpretation of older and/or foreign texts in relation to human culture. schizmatic cited the example of Roman law on orphans, which required all decisions regarding their welfare to be made by all on the principle that what “touches all must be approved by all”; this, mistakenly generalized, led to the idea of hierarchies having an obligation to represent popular desires.
  • If the Portuguese managed to implant Roman Catholicism in sub-Saharan Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, and if the African Church remained in regular contact with Rome, interesting things could happen. At worst, this Africa would be as isolated from the outside world as Ethiopia; at best, this Africa could be plugged closely into European developments, with the institutional structure of the church aiding state-building greatly. It would help immensely if the slave trade didn’t take off.
  • If the Soviets were defeated by Nazi Germany in 1941-1942, Very Bad Things would happen. Worse would happen once the Allies began to nuke and firebomb Germany in 1945-1946. More at soc.history.what-if.
  • By the mid-16th century, the Portuguese had established an astonishingly successful global trading and colonial network, with permanent holdings on all of the world’s inhabitable continents save North America and bordering all of the world’s oceans. Portugal failed to retain its supremacy, though, like the Dutch a century later in many of the same territories, or the contemporary Venetians in the eastern Mediterranean, once larger territorial monarchies got involved. All three maritime societies depended heavily on foreigners to supplement scarce domestic labuor supplies, with the Dutch drawing upon north German Protestants and French Huguenots, for instance.
  • U of T professor Brian Stock’s work on textual communities in the Europe of the Middle Ages is relevant to the modern-day Internet universe. Everything, in the age of mass literacy and easy publication, is textual, as the infosphere expands rapidly in size and internal density. What is it like to be human when we can listen to mp3s of Titan’s wind?
  • Isn’t it odd that, in the United States, the colonies of the North settled by religious fanatics ended up becoming much more secular than the colonies in the South settled by happy-go-lucky capitalist entrepreneurs?

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2005 at 11:34 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] Yugoslavias That Never Were

I’m rather envious of nhw for his recent visit to Slovenia. You see, I’m something of a Slovenophile, as I blogged this spring. There’s something about Slovenia–the successful struggle of the folk against Germanization and Italianization, the rapid mdoernization, the relatively peaceful assertion of independence and subsequent Europeanization, the prominence of Laibach–that attracts me.

As much as I like independent Slovenia, though, nhw‘s suggestion to a Slovenian acquaintance that it was possible for Yugoslavia to have remained united is rather attractive. Last spring, I read the interesting anthology Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918-1992 by Dejan Djokic (reviewed here (PDF format) at The Global Review of Ethnopolitics). The various essays included in this anthology tend to make the point that Yugoslavia was never particularly united. Capital and labour markets in different regions were only imperfectly integrated, the nature of the relationship of the different component ethnic groups to wider Yugoslav society and to the Yugoslav state was never settled, and the initial motivation for creating Yugoslavia conflicted (Serbs wanted a larger nation-state, Slovenes and Croats wanted protection against a rapacious Italy). Despite all of these problems, though, a real Yugoslav community did exist up until 1992, and the truth of the old maxim of nation-building that in order to form shiny new nation-states one first has to destroy older multinational communities was bloodily shown.

Every year or so, posters on soc.history.what-if periodically compare Spain and Yugoslavia, wondering what it would have taken for Yugoslavia to successfully follow Spain’s successes in moving from an isolated one-party dictatorship towards a successful multi-party capitalist democracy embedded in western European political structures. (And conversely, what it would have taken for Spain to fall apart in a bloodbath of ethnic warfare, but that’s a separate subject.) Certainly Yugoslavia was worse off than Spain: It was a much younger state, its period of massive violence was ethnicized in a way generally lacking in Spain, its single-party-dictatorship was strongly embedded in national life and resistant to change, its geopolitical situation was more tenuous.

But the dissolution of Yugoslavia wasn’t inevitable. Yes, Yugoslavia might have been a one-party Communist dictatorship with serious problems in every sphere of life; Yugoslavia was also a country that enjoyed a significant degree of integration with western Europe, that was technologically advanced and rather prosperous by central and eastern European standards, that was socially reasonably liberal and even enjoyed a modest degree of political pluralism. Dragan Antulov‘s entertaining Just Another September 1939 ISOT timeline, imagining what would have happened if Yugoslavia as it existed on 1 September 1985 was transported back in time 46 years, demonstrated just this. Any society subjected to such a change where–as Dragan wrote–Trotsky’s life could be saved thanks to a controversial music video was modern enough to manage the breakthrough to happy consumerist late-modern democracy made by Spain a decade earlier, and by Soviet-occupied central Europe just a few years later.

Just as France needn’t have fallen in 1940, so might the (no longer Socialist and) Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have survived to the present day. We’ve no idea what would have been, but we can gain hints by taking a sort of negative impression based on what did happen: the millions of people who wouldn’t have been driven from their homes, the sophisticated economies which wouldn’t have collapsed, the polities blighted by war and nationalist exceptionalism, yawning gap separating Slovenia from Greece that now exists inside the European Union.

Yugoslavia wasn’t so different from Us; Yugoslavia shouldn’t be seen as being an Other. Yugoslavia was just unlucky.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2005 at 11:15 pm

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[META] Changes

I’ve established a permanent link to my comments policy and to my two favourite haunts on USENET (soc.history.what-if and alt.history.future).

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2005 at 10:15 pm

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[META] Policy on Comments

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2005 at 9:54 pm

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[REVIEW] Thoughts on Ghost in the Shell

I’ve read the second edition of Masamune Shirow’s manga Ghost in the Shell (basically the same as the first but with a graphic lesbian threeway included), bought at Grey Region during a recent sale, again. Three thoughts.

  • The art and storytelling is truly excellent.
  • The Puppeteer’s argument that individuality doesn’t exist, inasmuch as one’s identity is always mixed up with other people and there is extensive feedback horizontally (with other people) and vertically (with one’s body, with one’s larger environment) is well-presented. Back in the late 1980s when Shirow wrote Ghost in the Shell, this might have been a radical new insight.
  • In his annotations, Shirow comments that assassinations occur whenever the established political processes have failed to work, and that their presence in a society augurs a difficult future. Ghost in the Shell‘s late 2020s are grim indeed; and, it seems, grim futurology is increasingly proving itself correct.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2005 at 6:25 pm

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[META] SHWI Blogroll Update

I’ve added William Baird’s blog The Dragon’s Tales to the sidebar. Welcome!

Written by Randy McDonald

January 28, 2005 at 9:08 pm

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[REVIEW] The Phantom of the Opera; Or, The Cheapness of Culture

I wouldn’t have gone to see The Phantom of the Opera if my date hadn’t insisted. I still haven’t seen the musical, I haven’t listened to the soundtrack, and I’ve never read the original book written by Gaston Leroux, so I went with an open mind.

As fun as the date was, I’m afraid that I have to agree with the received opinion about the movie. Yes, Emmy Rossum gave a convincing portrayal of Christine Daaé, dewy-eyed and full-breasted teenage wünderkind haunted by the music always echoing in her mind, yes, Minnie Driver gave an entertaining performance as the egotistical star La Carlotta, and yes, the film certainly looked good. There were fundamental flaws in the narrative–why isn’t Christine’s character developed more and earlier? why does she accept the Phantom so readily as the Angel of Music? why did I find it difficult to care about the characters?–and I’m afraid that the soundtrack sounded fairly dated and bad-80ish to my ears. (“Faces” was a catchy song, I admit.) Perhaps I should read the late great Susan Sontag’s essay on camp?

I found the device used by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Joel Schumacher to frame the central narrative interesting. At the film’s beginning and at its end, and at intervals throughout the film, the auction scene and its aftermath are portrayed in a staticky black-and-white, featuring an aged and decrepit Vicomte de Chagny, dated in the grey year of 1919, with dirt and mutilated veterans of the Great War in the background. The main thread of the plot–Christine Daaé caught as a young girl of 16 at the beginning of her successes at the Opéra Populaire, caught between the love of the handsome young Vicomte Raoul de Changy and that of the obsessive and murderous genius the Phantom–takes place in the bright and lively Paris of 1870.

Presumably, we see Paris as it was in 1870 before the Franco-Prussian War that started in July and the catastrophic defeats which caused the five-month-long siege of Paris for five months, which allowed the confusedly socialist Paris Commune while the starving poor of barricaded Paris consumed (among other things) the animals of the Paris Zoo, leading to the deaths of twenty thousand people when the Third Republic forced its way into the desperate city in May of 1871.

For Paris, 1870 cleaves neatly into two halves. The second half of the year begins with the ridiculous fuss stirred up by Napoléon III at his wife’s behest about the accession of a Catholic Hohenzollern tio the unstable Spanish throne (a Hohenzollern, incidentally, as closely related to the restored Bonaparte dynasty as to the Protestant Hohenzollerns who ruled the Kingdom of Prussia), and quickly segues into a mixture of farce and tragedy. The first half of the year, now, is the climax of Émile Ollivier and his parliamentary liberalism, and the 17th year of the moderately successful rule of Napoléon III and his Second Empire.

Napoleon’s nephew may have followed a disastrous foreign policy, launching the costly and non-viable effort to install a Catholic Hapsburg on the throne of a republican and anti-clerical Mexico in the first half of the 1860s, then allowing the Prussian kingdom to overpower the other German states as Bismarck created a centralized and Prussian-dominated German empire in the second half of that decade. These two most critical faults aside, the Second Empire was actually fairly good for France. Had it not been for the catastrophic interruption of war, the Second Empire might actually have become the permanent French regime. Certainly, the 1860s was a decade that saw the French economy flourish thanks to Napoléon III’s enlightened policies, with the rapid development of the French coal and steel industry, the foundation of enduring banks like the Société Générale and Crédit Lyonnais and the creation of a profitable stock market, and the emergence of a true consumer society in major urban centres as the French middle class took form.

The Opéra Populaire was product of this capitalist boom. Consider that, at the beginning of the film, this institution was bought by two dealers in scrap metal, examples of the Second Empire’s class of newly wealthy capitalists, if backed by the aristocratic wealth of the de Chagny line. Consider that the “opéra” of this centre seems to be not so much traditional opera as the musical, a related musical form which (as Wikipedia notes) differed from the opera in that the musical used various forms of popular music and unaccompanied dialogue, and continues to differ inasmuch as it has a much wider audience than an old-style opera that is now largely seen as an archaic cultural form in the early 21st century. Consider that Christine Daaé comes from the ranks of the poor to dislodge the old-style La Carlotta with her pure and unaffected singing voice. The very narrative of The Phantom of the Opera celebrates the commercialization of culture, its (re)production for a mass audience.

The Phantom contests this model of cultural consumption, of course, creating music not out of a desire for profit but out of his pure love for Christine. It’s telling, though, that the only major plot changes from the musical version weaken his position, by portraying Raoul as a relatively developed hero rather than as a simple iconic love and by giving an actual character to the stagehand murdered by the Phantom. It isn’t as if the Phantom, between his obsessive romantic love and his inclinations towards murder, had much of a hand to start with.

It might not be a coincidence that Andrew Lloyd Webber created The Phantom of the Opera in the 1980s, in the middle of yet another capitalist economic boom.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 28, 2005 at 7:10 pm

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