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The Property Brothers and Permeable Boundaries

Sometimes, readers, ideas arise from the strangest places.

Recently, my car needed some work. So I was in a waiting room with a very large wide screen TV, which plays with the sound so on mute that it might as well be off.

And so it came to pass that I watched The Property Brothers for about 4 hours straight.

If you’ve never seen The Property Brothers, it’s a standard home show: house is desired, house is fixed up to the nines, obstacles are overcome, desires are met, and ultimately all is well.

The wrinkle in The Property Brothers is that the principals of the show are twin brothers. One, Jon, does the contracting work and is shown hammering and so forth. The other, Drew, is the business guy who talks money to the home buyers, and negotiates and irons out the financial details.

But because the sound was off, of course, I could focus on the more meta story of The Property Brothers. The details — were they in Toronto or Austin, with a couple or a single woman, a townhouse or a ranch? — were far in the background.

And I think the meta is this.

The Property Brothers is really about making the border between people who work with their hands and businesspeople/entrepreneurs potentially permeable. For some time now, American society has been increasingly separating the two. Folks who work with their hands are relegated to less and less of the pie. Businesspeople have gotten more and more. There is less and less interaction between the two.

The Property Brothers, though, works against the division while at the same time replicating it.

How? Let’s start with the replication first. In every show, Jon is what we might call “working guy” (tool belt, plaid shirt) and Drew is “entrepreneur guy” (suit, tie) who makes wealth out of the house not with his hands, but with his meetings, cell phone and so forth. Check out the pic below for how this works.

total binary

Then, let’s examine the way it works against splitting the roles. The show works to subtly move each brother out of their respective “working guy”/”entrepreneur guy” role as well, as the series goes on. Jon does occasionally talk to the home owners about the financial trade-offs of this or that alteration. Drew sheds his suit and walks around in an open-neck shirt sometimes.

Also, of course, the division is partly erased simply because of their visual similarity and kinship. They’re brothers, of course, and twins to boot.

I think the show works on a subconscious level as a kind of unification of “folks who work” with “folks who make money from investments.” It’s popular partly because it counteracts the increasing real life division. The imagery tells its audience “if we can morph between these roles, so can you.”

In addition, of course, the potential of rising real estate prices does make this unification between working stiff and investor possible for some people — which establishes the potency of the metaphor even more.

Here’s the pièce de résistance on their morphing between these two roles. The brothers have a web site devoted to themselves, http://www.thescottbrothers.com/, that is quite separate from the show’s web site. On it, Jon and Drew trade sartorial places. Jon, toolbelt guy on The Property Brothers, is dressed not only in a suit, but a three-piece suit. It’s quite spiffy as well. Drew, entrepreneurial guy, is in an open necked shirt. (There is a third brother, who works behind the scenes, and is right between the two sartorially.)

And, get this, they morph. The page that greets visitors is the page where their facial expressions keep changing. It’s as if they are saying: “this is all about morphing.”

Hillary Clinton and Comedy

There’s a momentous election tomorrow, readers, and I want to weigh in on a small piece of it.

And that is the kind of dreary impersonation of Hillary Clinton that viewers of Saturday Night Live see.

I don’t like the Kate McKinnon impersonation of Hillary Clinton, and I feel moved to write this before the election. I was watching some election-inspired comedy recently, and the impersonation really struck me as 1) a retrograde view of powerful women and 2) a not particularly inspired mimicry of Clinton herself.

Why retrograde? Because the SNL version plays Clinton as a crazed, power-mad bitch. She’s not a public servant with a lot of experience; she’s not an unfairly trashed politician; she’s not a lawyer; she’s not the grandmother; she’s not even a particularly savvy pol. Even, on the other side of the political spectrum of views, she’s not the secretive private e-mail hoarder or corrupt.

The crazed power-mad bitch element is seen best, perhaps, in this clip:

The end, where the Clinton character grades Trump as an F, and then promises to be “a stone-cold B” plays on two stereotypes of women.

The first one takes her experience and subtly recasts it as schoolmarmishness.

The second one is even worse — it’s the one that really caused me to write this post. The view that Clinton is a stone-cold bitch is exactly the kind of indictment that has been thrown against women who either do have some power in the world or are seeking it, or both.

The easy equation that powerful woman = bitch is misogynist. Pure and simple.

There’s very little political content, because it’s overwritten by the fact that Hillary is being subject to anti-woman clichés. She’s not being made fun of because of her politics, or anything related (speech, thought patterns, beliefs), as male presidential candidates are.

She’s being made fun of as a bitch.

I’m also surprised that SNL is peddling such an old, tired view of women.

This impersonation gets a lot of praise, like this, which calls it “genius.”

In fact, I don’t think that it is a particularly good impression except for the hair and the suits. Yes, McKinnon looks like Clinton when she gets in character.

But the crazy look in her eye doesn’t really match what one sees in Hillary Clinton. If the impersonation honed in on very real characteristics of the actual Clinton — her wonkishness, say, or her sometimes painfully clear discomfort with listening to voters, or the sense that she’s acting on the stump, rather than being authentic — maybe it would be genius.

As it is, it just falls back on a lazy, tired view of women. If they’re going for something big, it’s because they are power-mad bitches whose private lives are full of throttled rage (a theme in other SNL impersonations of Clinton).

So, to leave you with a genuinely funny woman on politics, here is Samantha Bee on the third presidential debate:

 

Eleven as E.T.: What Brave New World Is Stranger Things?

It’s Fall, readers!

So I’m going to weigh in today on one of the Netflix hits of the summer, which I watched in the (sigh) waning days of it. It’s Stranger Things.

Now, readers, I’m no particular fan of either science fiction or horror, the two main genres. But I also respect the abilities of both genres to be wonderfully, well, deep about what they are saying as they deliver time travel and monsters on the unbelievable side. By way of defining my fandom or lack thereof: I don’t relish Stephen King books, exactly, but I’ve read It. It is a profound look at the problem of human evil dished up with a narrative about scary and otherworldly clowns. It’s about the problem of human evil. The clown often appears — and is seemingly activated by — human evil: family abuse, racially motivated murder, and the like.

So, one of the things I liked about Stranger Things was its grounding of sci-fi/horror mysteries in a quotidian suburban world that in many ways is represented as the opposite of human evil. It’s a type of paradise. The birds chirping on the soundtrack are full of prelapsarian promise. it’s a world of calm and beauty, good friendships (among the four middle school boys), attentive and kindly teachers, and concerned parents. It’s also menaced with evil (a sinister government lab and eventually, an actual monster). Then there are the in-between characters who either let evil in or don’t fight it: family dysfunction (broken families; inattentive fathers, especially; drunk sheriff). It’s a war between good and evil. Sheriffs who can come back from the bottle and handle the weirdness choose the right side.

In that, it is (as many commentators have noted, see here and here) an homage to films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the novels of Stephen King, and the films that were made from them in the 1980s. E.T. was also a movie that represented suburban life as a type of paradise, even given parents who were either absent or without a clue to the goings-on.

So, when the character Eleven came on in Stranger Things, the first thing I thought was “she’s the E.T. of the movie.”  eleven

Eleven is a girl who arrives seemingly out of nowhere. She has a shaved head (visually close to bald) and huge eyes. Those are the initial “visually reminiscent of E.T.” clues. (She’s named Eleven because of a mysterious tattoo on her arm.)

So it is that I take issue with an interesting paean to Stranger Things, published by Ashley Reed in Avidly . Reed posits that Stranger Things is about a feminist re-envisioning of the 1980s films like E.T. to better represent girls’ inner lives and “to create female characters who are not just props in boys’ stories.”

I think in many ways Stranger Things is a retelling that doesn’t particularly recuperate the women’s stories in a more feminist direction.eleven-on-bike

One of the reasons is that Eleven’s story may be one of an unusual girl, but her affinities with E.T. (the character) are multiple. They frame her more as an interesting alien than as an independent girl. It’s not exactly a big step up for portrayals of women that Eleven is (metaphorically) an alien.  et-swathed-in-towel

Like E.T., Eleven finds a home in the room of one of the boys on bikes. Like E.T., she conceals her distinctive head in a covering (towel for him; blond wig for her). Like E.T., she is a passenger on those bicycles, rather than an independent rider.

If she were an independent rider on those bikes, then we’d be talkin’ new roles for girls.

More strikingly, Eleven is the E.T. in Stranger Things because she has a pressing need to get “home.” In what the audience sees, she has been removed from an (unseen) mother to live in the sinister government lab. She has been used as something of a lab experiment on telekinesis in the sinister government lab. There is an appropriately sinister father figure, the lab director. It is implied that her mother was part of similar experiments. Further, the lab director might be her actual father.

Next: more on Stranger Things.

More Jane Smiley: Henry and the Cathars

Hello, readers, hello! My summers are often quite wild, so I haven’t written in a while. But not for lack of thinking.

What I want to do today is pick up on my last post, about Jane Smiley’s twentieth-century trilogy, composed of 3 novels, Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. In my last post, I talked about Smiley’s use of the everyday as metaphor.

Today, though, I want to touch on another aspect of the books, one quite removed from the everyday. I want to explore the relationship between the meditations and work of Henry, the academic member of the fictional family at the heart of the trilogy, with the family’s place in time and with Smiley’s project.golden age, smiley

Henry is a bookish Midwestern boy who goes on to become a professor, specializing in Old English. There are touchpoints where he seems to be pointing to the older roots of the characters — older than their provenance in America and even their provenance in 18th and 19th century Europe.

How? Well, early in Early Warning, he thinks of their nearest place of twentieth-century commerce, Denby, as “village of the Danes.” That’s what it means according to his studies. And, that’s what it still means, if you notice that many of Smiley’s characters in Iowa farm country are of Scandinavian or German extraction, and take “Danes” broadly and maybe even metaphorically.

Later, though, Henry begins to think more broadly, about the Cathars. The Cathars,  for those not up on medieval history, were a sect in the medieval period. Henry’s ruminations on them have to do with their sexual equality (women could be leaders), their plague-filled time (there is talk of bloody fluxes), their beliefs (vegetarian), and their persecution (many were ultimately killed rather gruesomely as heretics against the Catholic church).

When Henry thinks of the Cathars, he clearly thinks of touchpoints between their time and our own. Sexuality equality; a mark of our time. Vegetarianism; ditto. Bloody fluxes; several of Henry’s friends die of AIDS. The only outlier is persecution.

So are we supposed to read “the Cathars are us” as one of the meanings, given those commonalities? If so, what about that persecution?

Well, possibly that too, since the trilogy spans a time of religious divides.

rue des catharsI don’t think, though, that is intended to be the ultimate meaning. We are distanced from the Cathars much more than from Smiley’s multitude of Scandinavian/German/Northern European extraction Iowa-born characters.

I think it is intended to deepen her references to current events. All three books are a welter of contemporary-for-the-time references, and at times, for all my admiration of these books, the decades-by-decades references lend the books a cartoonish quality. In Early Warning alone, McGeorge Bundy drops in on a brother-in-law to discuss CIA policy and San Francisco poet Gary Snyder helps a sister in a motorcycle accident on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s references like this that make critics like NPR’s book critic Maureen Corrigan say things like it “occasionally feels like a flipbook of history-on-the-fly.”

However, there is a longer arc by century rather than decades. In the broad sweep of 100 years, the family in Smiley’s trilogy win and go ever upward. Once a local farm family, they end up bestriding the world, so to speak. Even with economic depressions, recessions, wars, and environmental concerns, the overall arc of their history is ascendant.

And, indeed, Americans often think of their history altogether as one of ascendancy.

With the Cathars, the book introduces a group that couldn’t, didn’t, meet every challenge. They weren’t ascendant. Perhaps it’s an intimation that empires rise and fall, and if the period of the 100 Years Trilogy is clearly a rise, the Cathars shadow a potential fall.

Several Years On

I have several posts a’workin’ reader, on such topics dear to this space as dance and books. But, I had to drop them to write a piece on How I Feel Now more than two years after starting this blog. Now that life has taken an alt-ac shape, and even something of a post-ac one.

I was inspired to write this by read posts of one of my favorite post-ac writers, Walking Ledges. He wrote a post a few days ago about how good it feels to sign a contract (for teaching) and know that the search is no more. (See it here.) That he no longer has to run around and get used to new things, virtually every year.

Yes. One of the most difficult parts of transitioning from graduate school is the search and the uncertainty.

My life includes a bit of teaching also. But as time transitioning out of graduate school has gone on, I’ve realized how nice the life of a freelance writer can be. Now, this is not really new news. If you count this blog, I’ve been writing for more than two years.

But a robust freelance career does not spring full blown from the head of Zeus. It’s taken me more than a year to fully transition to the point where I have good clients, interesting work and enough dinero to pay the bills.

I think what I want to write about, though, is the fact that I HAVE DONE IT. I’m successful! I’m happy! I’m been so focused on the push that it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve realized I slowly did climb the mountain. At least part of a mountain. I’m here where I can see the valley!

mountains and valleyI sometimes use the “climb the mountain not straight up but with switchbacks” analogy with students. That is, do something (in their case, study) steadily and methodically rather than trying to cram it in at the last minute, and eventually, as in the case of hiking with switch-backs, you’ll achieve a good altitude without muscle strain or broken bones.

Here’s what I really love about the life of a writer. I do what I want when I want. I have flexibility — as much flexibility as I used to have studying and teaching.

I used to spend research summers reading and writing in shorts and a t-shirt with the fan blowing. I loved it. When I realized how tight the academic job market really was, I had many thoughts. But chief among them was: I can’t stand to lose my research summers.

And I feel that I haven’t.

I think the whole short-and-t-shirt-with-fan is a beatific vision of being present in the mind, actually, and not having to be present in (to cite one alternative) a 9 to 5 office. It’s not that you can’t be present in the mind there, but present in the mind is (in my experience) rarely the focus. Present for a set of tasks and a social world that is sometimes Kabuki-esque. So my dream scenario, which I have now made the real scenario, combines present in the mind and comfortable in the body.

Can’t be beat, right?

It isn’t that there aren’t still things I want. I need some boost in income. I love working in archives, so I’ll be looking for a way to work that into the writing life. I’ll keep up this blog as a think space.

But life is good. Alt-ac’ers and post-ac’ers out there, light is at the end of the tunnel. Keep a’traveling on.

Jane Smiley and Her Trilogy

Hello, readers! Today, I want to write on books.

I would say “a book,” but in fact I’m writing about three. They are the three books that make up Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. The century trilogy follows one family from the 1920s to 2020. (Yes, according to Smiley’s web page, she is prognosticating into the future!)

I think Jane Smiley is one of the best of contemporary novelists, and today I want to talk about one reason why.

She excels at making metaphor out of everyday life. In one section of Early Warning, which focuses on the 1960s, a soldier is going through basic training. Around him, other soldiers sing/chant the rhymed marching songs known as “Jody’s,” for the Other Man who appears in all of them. An example from the book: Jody saw your girl today/ How’s he gonna stay away / She turned your picture to the wall/ Left his boots out in the hall. Another: Ain’t no use in feelin’ down/ Jody’s got your girl in town. early warning

There are others: “Ain’t no use to sit and moan/ Jody’s got your girl back home” is one I can quote from memory, although it isn’t quoted in the book.

Although quoting a Jody could be seen as part of verisimilitude – it’s just a realistic picture of what a soldier’s life is like, along with learning alpha, bravo, Charlie, delta, foxtrot – it acquires a different resonance once we know what happens to the soldier, a grandchild of the original family. He dies in Vietnam.

Reading the book, it suddenly became apparently to me that the Jody’s are about dying. Though they are ostensibly rueful humor, they are also inextricably about another man replacing you. Because you’re not there. The soldier is always not there in the scene described by a Jody: his absence is a precondition of a Jody. The girl is with another man – pursued, courted – because the solider singing is no longer there.

How did this become apparent to me in the book? Well, for one thing, Jody’s are always doubled. They are a call and response form. As such, they are also, more overtly, about joining a group and being part of it, as a solider does in the army.

The call and response is the way Smiley actually represents them in the book, not in the quotes I’ve done above. Like this: “Jody saw your girl today! (Jody saw your girl today!) How’s he gonna stay away! (How’s he gonna stay away!)” (pp. 175-176).

Perhaps it’s the presence of English professors in the book, but it caused me to think about the literary purpose of the doubling. The singing/chanting soldier, there, marching, is always doubled by a soldier who has been taken away from his haunts and is no longer there.

The Jody’s are about being erased from the land you once knew. In that, they remind me of A.E. Housman’s “Is My Team Ploughing,”  from A Shropshire Lad. In that one, a Jody conducts a colloquy with the dead soldier.

More on Jane Smiley and her trilogy soon!

 

What Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap Has To Do With Terrorism

Last weekend, I went to a local theater to see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. This is not ordinarily a play I would have gone to see. Despite my great affection for mysteries (which I have discussed before on this blog), I have never been a Dame Agatha fan. Too c-r-e-a-k-y.

However, I was inspired to go and see it by reading an observation about the play. Now, reader, a confession. I am no longer sure where I read this observation. I believe it was in the program handed out in the previous play, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. I also believe it was said by The Mousetrap’s director, Adam Immerwahr.

But alas, programs were made to be thrown away…and I did throw it away. But the observation kept growing in my mind. Here’s what it was, recalled by me and rolled into a nutshell by my memory and my computer.

The Mousetrap is very germane to an age concerned with terrorism. Why? Because Christie was writing in the World War II period, which was very concerned with where death and injury were going to come from. There was no way of predicting where bombs, for example, would hit. There was no way of predicting what they would do. There was no way of fully knowing when death or injury would strike. There was no way to fully shield from them.

That applies clearly to the bombing of London during WWII, for example. But it also applies to recent terrorist activity. And by recent we can go to the Brussels bombings of last week or 9-11 fifteen years ago.

So The Mousetrap, which (as many people know), is a classic murder mystery. It is set in an English country house. Everyone is trapped inside by a snowstorm. One person is murdered. Someone in the house must be guilty. But no one knows who. They all suspect each other, by the end.

As always in a Dame Agatha mystery, the end is wrapped up neatly. Order is restored.

Yet it does fascinate me that associations with a concern as recent as terrorism can be made in a work so associated with the English idea of order and so old. (It’s the longest running play in the world. A stage production has been running in London since 1952.) One of the qualities I love about art, though, is its ability to stand apart from the truisms of the age. The Age of Terrorism, if we are in it, is nothing new.

Some of the interest of mysteries is not only the working toward order, but the continuous possibility that it be ripped. And that is not as new as yesterday’s terrorism, but literally as old as the hills.

Why Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 Is Like The Hunger Games

I don’t keep up with television, and, frankly, only watch many television shows when they make it to Netflix—which I do watch. Recently, I saw one that relates so much to the current moment—including presidential politics—that I had to write about it.

I recently watched the first several episodes of a show that aired several years ago entitled Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23.b apt 23

Reader, it seemed to me like The Hunger Games of television. The latter, both book and movies, are something of a parable about competition’s role in times of economic and social uncertainty. Young people are loosed to kill each other in a series of bread and circuses televised for everyone’s enjoyment. That’s the game.

hunger gamesThe premise of Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 is simple. A young Midwestern woman, June, comes to New York City dewy-eyed, with a great job in finance, a great medical student fiancé, and a company-paid place to live. All economic and social issues firing happily on all gears, in other words. Love and work, and a nice cushion.

She no sooner arrives in the city than she finds the company—which paid for her move, her apartment, and will pay her salary—has had its assets frozen for CEO fraud. When she walks in her first day, law enforcement officials are cleaning the place out. Needless to say, that means company-sponsored apartment is moot. She is desperate to find a place to live in a highly expensive city.

So, she becomes prey. Now, this is a comedy, mind you. But, after finding a number of predatory/weird situations, they comes upon a more urban young woman, Chloe, who needs a roommate. Our Midwestern woman is ecstatic.

However, viewers know that Chloe has a scheme. She takes the deposits and first month’s rent, and then drives the roommate out by her behavior. In the meantime, she’s a scam artist, with a number of grifter-like techniques to obtain food and clothes.

Then, Chloe sleeps with the fiancé, thereby helping to unmask him as a major philanderer.

June’s engagement is broken, she retaliates against Chloe by behaving outrageously as well. In the end, sitcom style, they have become friends.

Which is just as well, because June doesn’t have any place to fall back on. Her parents, seen on Skype, tell her that, to pay for her MBA tuition, they have skipped their mortgage payments.

Oh! And she takes an unpaid internship which she loses to a woman with a tipped uterus. The boss likes that she can never have kids. She starts working in the local independent coffee shop.

I know this is a long synopsis, reader. It’s long for a reason.

The plot coordinates have to line up to let us see how starkly this is a parable about predatory behavior in the age before Bernie Sanders put on the table a discussion of how predatory the environment looks to young people. Actually, a lot of people, young or not.

Now, what happens is that Chloe is still predatory—she makes a living scamming people in various ways—but the two women bond. Significantly, June pays her back in kind by stealing all her furniture and holding it (with the help of one of Chloe’s ex-roommates) until she gets her money back.

So, if we go with The Hunger Games as metaphor, June learns not to be just nice sunny smart person with a plan, but someone who retaliates in kind. She is a strategist with buoyant optimism when we meet her. She has to learn to become a warrior.

More centrally, however, the fact that Chloe uncovers June’s boyfriend as a no-goodnik bonds them. They become friends.

Oh, let me add one other detail. June’s would-be mentor at her job is, of course, downsized when the firm closes. He ends up as a coffee shop manager. June needs a job. He hires her, saying words to the effect of, “oh, I fired someone for absolutely no reason to make room for one of my friends.”

I find this very grim. In the moral universe of the show, predatory behavior, stealing and dishonesty are all ok. They are a kind of lingua franca, actually. People bond by doing them, and then move on to friendship. But it means that the bedrock is untrustworthiness.

There’s a whole part of academia that examines the philosophical meanings of television shows. There is, for example, a book called The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy.

friends_hContrast this with the universe of Friends, a similar “people come to New York and hang in apartments and coffee shops” kind of show. In the Friends moral universe, they actually are friends—supportive. it’s important to have a social network that is not dependent on economic need. Economic need is hardly ever mentioned. (They are never in danger of being the baristas at Central Perk.) It’s the product of a good economic time.

It disturbs me that the predatory moral universe of Apartment 23 is played for laughs. And I hope Bernie Sanders and his campaign—president or not, elected or not—changes the cultural climate in which it took place.

 

 

A Tale of Two Empires

So, recently I began to talk about my idea that two of the regions of the United States are replicating the pattern of Rome and Byzantium/Constantinople. New York is Rome. California is Constantinople. New York is strong, but being caught up to and surpassed by other, newer centers of culture and power, such as California. In this, California is like Byzantium, which was apparently the place to be when the Roman Empire went into eclipse. Much better than Rome, for a long while. (For more on this, see my posts here and here.)

I want to say two things about this before proceeding. First, when I say “California,” I am also referring to trends among the western states, really. I am in a way using “California” for the capital and cultural flows that can also certainly be seen in the entire Pacific Northwest, although the two regions also exhibit profound differences. One difference? The Northwest doesn’t really want to be seen as a capital, whereas California embraces the idea.

Second, I don’t mean, of course, that California is “Byzantine” as that word is generally understood. If anything, the West is more transparent and open than the northeast, and easier for outsiders to understand, not harder. The analogy is the analogy of capital and cultural flows, not of specific characteristics.

However, I do think there is an analogue of the pejorative “Byzantine”—sneaky, convoluted–in the characterization of California as flaky and unsubstantial—which seems to be fading away now, but used to be a fairly common way to characterize it. In Disney concert hallboth cases, the fading capital is still strong enough to try to lob criticisms toward the new one. Perhaps part of the fade-away is, as the author M.G. Lord notes on the evolving dignity of Los Angeles as a cultural capital, it is simply that, as time goes on, Los Angeles has more of a history to be dignified about.

I can name several factors that made me think of California as the new seat of empire. At the time, I had been powerfully influenced by an Amtrak trip from the Pacific Northwest to the San Francisco Bay area. The cars were simply full of wealth. Train travel is not particularly luxury travel, usually, but this was a trip in which passengers were given complimentary wine, cheese, and fruit nearly every hour on the hour. And this wasn’t a particular first class travel compartment: it was the train generally. There was simply more wealth and ease and pleasure in it than Amtrak in the northeast states would ever have.

A friend and I who lived in Boston were equally fascinated by the idea that our living in the East had meant that we were part of the national story. In California, where we had met, you were part of a regional story. This—like the grocery store in my recent post—is part of the significant tells in daily life.

One can think of news programs reporting national election results, for example, that speak of “the results” and “the results from [for example] California.” “The results” is the entire election, often viewed predominantly through when the precincts of the northeast close and report. “The results from California” are from a subsidiary, whereas results from Boston and New York combined are it.

And yet California is where trends start and the West is increasingly where monetary, business, and population power are. They are not exclusively there, of course. But more and more, the areas that set themselves up for expansion versus constriction are where, well, people expand.

 

Sailing to Byzantium: On West Versus East

So, reader, yesterday I talked about the spatial arrangements of the northeastern and western United States. Today’s post is a continuation, and I want to talk about the growing power of the western United States vis-à-vis the northeast in recent decades.

archangel michaelSo, to begin. A number of years ago, I went to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the art of Byzantium (Constantinople)—and it was beautiful, large, and stuffed with art. Icons, primarily, and artifacts of daily life.

It was also, of course, a nicely curated exhibit with plenty of informational items on the relationship of Rome and Byzantium. (Unfortunately, no record of this exhibit survives online, so I can only give a thumbnail sketch of what I remember.) Briefly: Rome had a host of problems; Constantine became emperor; he converted to Christianity; he established the seat of empire in Byzantium/Constantinople. That city, once the eastern-most satellite of the Roman Empire, eventually took over Rome’s place as the largest and most powerful capital.

Essentially, the exhibit was arguing that Constantinople was the art capital, the cultural capital, and the political capital as Rome became far less powerful. I also remember thinking that the exhibit was trying to remove the art of Byzantium from the effects of the word “Byzantine,” which is pejorative. It means subterranean, or unduly, treacherously complicated. Not trustworthy. It was seeking a place for Constantinople as a strong capital of empire.

As I recall, Constantinople was presented as a lovely place, full of beauty and ease. The overall idea was that, rather than being “Byzantine,” with everything that connotes about up-to-no-good complexity, it was the best place to be in the Roman Empire of the period, whereas Rome was, well, fallen upon hard times. “Byzantine” was a political attack by Rome upon Byzantium, not a full representation of the place.

(I might add that, in searching for the exhibit I saw and not being able to find it, I did come across a record of a talk at the Smithsonian’s web site that has something of the same points. I quote: “The Byzantine Empire shone with intellectual and artistic brilliance at a time when Western Europe was deep in the Dark Ages and flourished long after the first stirrings of the Renaissance. When the Roman Empire was divided between east and west, Emperor Constantine chose Byzantium as the new eastern capital and renamed it Constantinople in 330 A.D. The empire was one of the longest that has ever existed, and its arts continued to influence other cultures long after it came to an end.”)

Here’s what I thought, walking out. California is Constantinople. New York is Rome. transamerican new vs oldPowerful, and putting an imprimatur on things. But suffering such constriction that it will never again be able to genuinely lead. What I have been witnessing in my own life is a turning from one major capital to another. And the other was once thought lesser, but now has far more resources.

Next: more on the western states as emergent capitals.