American Civilization

January 31, 2009

Empire and Colony (part one)

Filed under: colonization,Empire & Colony — equiano @ 3:29 pm


On Thursday I remarked that the root word of “culture”— colere, a term that originally possessed a range of meanings including inhabit, cultivate, protect, and honor with worship– developed in several different directions: colonus (colony), cultus (cult) and cultura (culture). This etymological foundation thus links together in a fortuitous way the possible connotations of culture as it is used today. In a global society– i.e. a planet that has been transformed by an accelerating and deepening process of ‘globalization‘– in which culture occupies a prominent position in terms of daily life and economic activity, culture becomes not only an expression or refraction of social conditions but (according to your view) a weapon, a source of either connection or antagonism, an all-encompassing concept that seems to contain all possible forms and products of human activity. (The latter phrase– “human activity”– is possibly the broadest definition of culture, one drawn from anthropological antecedents.) Culture as American culture, as the ubiquity of American cultural products and practices, has provoked reactions across the world, as with Jose Bove’s dismantling of a McDonald’s in Montpellier. While Bove’s direct action was, in part, a response to GM products it also spoke to an aesthetic concern– namely that the spread of fast food has undermined our relationship to what we eat and threatens global cultural diversity. Here, it would seem, colonus and cultura are once more intertwined: globalization as the dissemination of American culture (and the American economic model of neoliberalism) is seen by some to be a form of cultural imperialism (pdf): the colonization of other cultures.

But let’s move onto the issues broached in class: Empire and Colony.

Empire as it is used to describe a politico-geographical formation extending back into antiquity is usually defined as a large territory of composite units  formed out of previously separate units, one that is heterogeneous and unequal, and characterized by a relationship of domination, a core-periphery structure which entails local administration, usually by colonized proxies (sometimes called “compradors”). Empire’s effects are manifold and include the creation of hybridized cultural practices and identities, and the massive flow-counterflow of people, plants, germs, goods, and ideas. Historical examples of Empire include the Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Habsburg, Persian and Mughal. If some of these Empires are unfamiliar to you then you have already keyed in to one of the most important features of Empire: it doesn’t last.

Empire is distinct from the term imperialism, which describes both a process and a set of ideas. It seems to have been first used with regard to Napolean III (1860s) and later with the policies of Disraeli, et al, who self-identified as imperialists. 

JA Hobson’s Imperialism identified it as the pursuit of new investment spaces, an idea developed by Lenin’s Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which held that monopoly capitalism and imperialism were identical. This formulation was widely influential even outside marxist circles, and gave rise to the notion that imperialism was largely a Western phenomenon. Still, others held that imperialism simply meant the domination or control of one people over others, particularly through the mechanism of the State, which allowed for a distinction between formal and informal imperialism. If the former signified absolute physical control, then the latter indicated something less direct though still powerful.

In general, most people these days think of the latter, informal imperialism, when they employ the term: a small group of nations dominates and exploits the rest of the world via state power, TNCs, the World Bank, etc. The radical view holds that informal imperialism (often, and confusingly, referred to as Empire) is more or less synonymous with US foreign policy, which shares certain features with the formal colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries though it is, perhaps, not so direct, instead using client regimes, as well as economic, diplomatic, and cultural forms of control. Military action, however, is never as government officials say in a deceptively homely metaphor “off the table”– as witnessed in Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan. (For a record of “foreign interventions” carried out by the US see Stephen Kinzer’s recent Overthrow or here.)

January 28, 2009

Florida Cowmen

Filed under: American West,Florida — equiano @ 9:00 pm

Remember how I told you in class that Florida has more cattle than Texas? Apparently this is no longer the case. The impact of a rising population and construction of homes and strip malls have diminished pasturage. According to the Baltimore Sun there are now 1 million head of cattle in the state, down from 2 million in 1972. In spite of that decline the cattle industry persists, as evidenced by  Bob “Dusty” Montana’s website Florida Cattle Ranch. (Check out “Palpating Cows” if you have a strong stomach.)

As we’ve seen, the notion of the West as the last frontier on the continent is an enduring part of the American myth-system. Yet the argument has been advanced that the last frontier was in fact located in Florida.


Filed under: PSAs — equiano @ 8:43 pm

I need your help. One of the problems associated with keeping the same seminar is that I do not have access to your course evaluations from the Fall. In the interests of improving our class I ask that you offer advice on what to change, what to keep, etc. For instance: would you prefer to work in small groups? In-class writing to prepare you for midterms and papers? Juice-boxes and sing-alongs? Post a comment to this entry and give me your considered views. Try not to use foul language. No need to identify yourself. Your input is much appreciated.

January 26, 2009

Great Plains

Filed under: American West,colonization,Native America — equiano @ 9:51 pm

A panorama of the Great Plains

Apparently Lakota Sioux have seceded from the United States. 

The Republic of Lakotah website featuring an interview with Russel Means.

As we move forward with the semester we’ll see that the issue of indigenous rights remains a crucial issue not only in the United States but globally. The UN recently adopted the declaration of the rights of indigenous people.

Here’s a photo– a postcard, actually– of the aftermath of Wounded Knee:


January 22, 2009

Welcome to AMS1b

Filed under: PSAs — equiano @ 7:43 pm


I forgot to mention a few things in class today. First: I hereby pledge to grade and return your work within 3 weeks at the absolute maximum. We (by which of course I mean “you”) are also going to be taking more quizzes this semester. These will be multiple choice, strictly to assess reading knowledge. Finally, I want us to play with maps. Here’s the first.


For the geographically minded, try this quiz

One other thing: the seminar syllabus will be posted over the weekend on its own page.

January 20, 2009

Praise Song for the Day

Filed under: poems — equiano @ 8:31 pm
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what's on the other side.
I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.

We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.

-- Elizabeth Alexander

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