Monday, February 09, 2009

A Day at the Museum

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Summer Reading: Hermes' Dilemma and Hamlet's Desire

Hello all! I am going to host a summer reading group on the work "Hermes' Dilemma and Hamlet's Desire; On the Epistemology of Interpretation" by Vincent Crapanzano. Hope very much that you all can join me as we make our merry way through pages and pages of highly erudite vocabulary!
An excerpt from the back: Treating subjects as diverse as Roman carnivals and Balinese cockfights, circumcision, dreaming, and spirit possession in Morocco, transference in psychoanalysis, self-characterization in teenage girls' gossip, Alice in Wonderland, and Jane Austen's Emma, dialogue models in hermeneutics, and semantic vertigo in Hamlet's Elsinore, these essays look critically at the inner workings of interpretation in human sciences and literary study. In modern Western culture's attempts to interpret and communicate the nature of other cultures, Crapanzano finds a crippling crisis in representation. He shows how the quest for knowledge of "exotic" and "primitive" people is often confused with an unexamined need for self-definition, and he sets forth the resulting interpretive paradoxes, particularly the suppression of any awareness of the play of power and desire in such an approach. What is missing from contemporary theories of interpretation is, in Crapanzano's account, a crucial understanding of the role context plays in any act of communication or its representation-in interpretation itself.

I am interested in this book due to its in-depth and contextual/historical point of view upon the academic world, literature, writing, and I think in a wider sense, human communication in general. If you are interested in the Summer Reading Group, please take advantage of the linked page for this book,

If you would rather not join in on this particular reading, I encourage you to go out there and find something thought-provoking and incindiary to challenge your mind this summer! My suggestion: Said's "Orientalism" if you have never read it. Happy reading!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

First Civilization?

The first civilization was the kingdom of Sumer. Or was it? It all depends on how we define the word “civilization,” and its adjective, “civilized.” So when DID we become civilized?

A civilization is currently thought to have a list of certain attributes, all thought to be dependent on the sedentism arising from the agricultural revolution of c. 10,000 – 12,000 BCE.
A civilization by this definition expresses:
- mass settlement (no more hunting-gathering please, you at the back!)
- agriculture, that is, domesticated grains, etc.
- domesticated animals (aren’t they one of the reasons we got chickenpox?)
- a quite extensive social hierarchy, including kings, priests, merchants, farmers, and slaves (Oh, that’s why our civilization works that way…)
- impressive architectural feats (by whose estimation?)
- a writing system (ah, the catch. But it made administration a whole lot easier. No more messy arguing with the peasants, just show them the sign they can’t read.)

The first culture that includes all of these things is Sumer, in Southern Mesopotamia. A messy civilization at that, all city states interconnected and jostling for power, but a “civilization” nevertheless. It was not alone, though. The 2nd and 3rd millennia were a time for rising civilizations. Civilizations were up and coming in India, China, and Egypt at the time. Sumerian civilization only beat them by about half a millennium, which isn’t much, if you think of it in the context of (modern) human existence – about 200,000 years.

The Sumerians weren’t the first people in Mesopotamia, either. Rather, they were the product of a happy and unhappy mixing of cultures between the people who settled there first around 5200 BCE, the Ubaids, and Semitic peoples from the Syrian and Arabian deserts who immigrated around the 3rd millennium BCE. It was only after this culture clash that we got the Sumer that we know and love today.

So Sumer was the firs civilization, and “WE” became civilized around the 3rd millennium BCE. At least that’s what we think so far… But being civilized ourselves takes a lot of time out of our day. We don’t always have time to catch on right away to things that don’t jive with the perspective that’s been taken in the past. All that writing, and farming, and mass settlement, you know.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Pyramids Around the World

Although the famous Pyramids of Giza are an amazing sight, they are not the only pyramids around. In fact, pyramids, or pyramid-shaped mounds, seem to be a popular cultural motif of ancient societies. And can you blame them?

Mountains, places of mystery for many ancient cultures, seemed to occupy a liminal space between the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. They were the highest things around - they still are, I suppose - and they were the seats of the gods. Thunder, lightning, rain, (powerful and magical forces of life and destruction) all came from the mountains into the lives of everyday people. Furthermore, they often marked the edge of the known world - the rim of the universe. Control over such a powerful thing would denote both a connection to and a mastery of the known and unkown. Certainly those that could build mountains were like to the gods. And those that were buried under them? They had become - literally and figuratively - the groundwork of society.

Of course, there are other theories about what a pyramid is meant to represent. Possibly it is a univerally appealing shape. Some think it has magical properties that the ancients were wise enough to exploit. Maybe it was just a natural process of one-upsmanship from the mound that a burial produces. We may never know what pyramids truly represented to the cultures that have past. (Current pyramids - such as that built over the underground entrance to the Louvre - seem to represent enigma and intellectualism to most, symbolizing the mystery pyramids are for us.)

In any case, it is clear that pyramid structures occur on every continent. Some of the places that pyramids, or artificial mountains, have been discovered are Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, England, and North and South America, just to name a few. And new ones are being discovered - in fact, just lately, an archaeologist in Bosnia has hypothesized that what was thought to be a hill outside Visiko, Bosnia-Herzogovina, is actually a pyramid. If the ancient societies' hope was to build convincing mountains, they seem to have succeeded. And they certainly succeeded in building a part of their culture into the landscape of time and history.

LINKS: (although [as a site] definitely in the realm of pseudoscience/esotera, this site still provides a good overview of various pyramids around the world. I just wouldn't put any stock in the editorial. Scroll to the bottom for links to the different areas of the world - it's divided into four) (a fun, interactive site from NOVA that allows you to explore different parts of Egyptian culture associated with the pyramids, as well as the pyramids themselves - even provides cross-sections of some!) (a page with links to sites for burial mounds around the world. Actually a site on First Nations burial mounds in the US) (a site on ancient kofun, or Japanese burial mounds) (an article regarding the apparent pyramid [?] outside Visiko) (a professional, if lengthy, analysis of the claim that the hill outside of Visiko is a pyramid)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

More on the MInoans: the Phaistos Disc

The Phaistos Disc is an artifact from Crete that dates to approximately 1700 BC. Although contemporary with Linear A script, the Phaistos Disc is in another Minoan script; one which the famous Minoan archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans called "hieroglyphic."
The disc was discovered in the North-East apartments of the Minoan Palace at Phaistos in Southern Crete.
There seem to be a number of competing 'decipherments' of the disc, by various people, some of which tie the script to Semitic languages and claim it is a list of commodities, others of which claim the disc is in very Ancient Greek and is a geometry proof regarding the paradox of parallel lines.
Due to recent discoveries, and research, however, the most plausible theory may be that one tying the disc to Linear B script, that is, ancient Hellenic language.
Links below provide some small sample of the various decipherment schemes.

LINKS: (overview of the disc and one possible decipherment scheme at the bottom, includes syllabary) (site of the scholars [?] who deciphered the disc as an ancient Hellenic language) (overview of various possible decipherments that have been put forward) (translation according to the very Ancient Greek decipherment scheme) (decipherment of the Phaistos Disc as a complex Minoan calendar - a very confusing page)

Graffiti - a Human Pastime

Disgusted by graffiti? Don't be. You might be looking at the next Chauvet Cave Paintings. The desire to make a mark on the physical world around us is timeless, and seems to be a human universal. From 35,000 year old caves in France to the Egyptians, Romans, and religious sites in India, evidence shows that people have been scratching and painting what we would call vandalism today since before history itself.

The etymology of the word "graffiti" is somewhat ambiguous. Some say it is derived from the Greek word graphein "to write" and was originally used as a reference to drawing or scribbling on Roman architecture, others that it comes from the the Latin graffiare "to scratch." Either way, the modern connotations of illegal, antisocial, and rude vandalism on private property stay the same. Currently, there are programs throughout the US to clean up graffiti in order to preserve property value and maintain the respectability of neigborhoods.

However, the timeless nature of the art of graffiti begs the question: what's so bad about unsolicited artwork? Graffiti, like other modernly illicit expressions of human creativity, is a scintillating and usually beautiful corner of our culture. Moreover, our reaction to it also deserves examination as a commentary on social control and cultural programming.

So next time you go by the overpass, try giving the graffiti a second look. If it helps, think of it in a museum.

LINKS: (informative page on graffiti old and new, some pictures of ancient graffiti) (official site for the Chauvet Caves, France, the spectacular caves where paleolithic depictions of the animal and natural world have existed undisturbed for the last 35,000 years. Click on "visit the cave" to take a virtual tour) (ancient rock art ["graffiti"] in Saudi Arabia, with lots of pictures) (Sumerian graffiti, may contain clues to how written language was developed) (article from LA Times on graffiti displaying what might be earliest known writing system)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Rivers Lost in Time

Today, London is a city along the Thames. But its history is built beside many other rivers, now subverted, built over, or formed into sewers. During the Medieval times (roughly 400 - 1200 AD) the rivers Langbourne (possibly), Walbourne, Fleet, Tyburn, Westbourne, Neckinger, Effra, as well as Tyburn Brook, Counter's Creek, Stamford Brook, and Hackney Brook all formed a watery landscape beside which the villages which became what we know today as London were built. Some were large enough to be navigable by barge - 12 feet or more wide and more than 30 feet deep.

The waterways still exist - in one form or another - and can be detected in the landscape, sewer ways, culverts, storm drain systems, and small brooks throughout the city. Many still are tributary to the Thames as well.

The ghostly presence of these disappeared waters are a fascinating link to London's history, while also serving as a commentary on the huge ecological impact of historical, as well as modern, human development.

Lost Rivers of London by Nicholas Barton

LINKS: (very good and informative overview of the rivers) (interesting tracing of the rivers through London - no maps though) (really interesting, though mainly on the biggest Subterranean river, the Fleet, including a map, and pictures of the modern clues to its existence)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Lost Language of the Minoans

They say the written language of Linear A will never be deciphered by modern linguists. Mysterious and elusive, the undeciphered script of Linear A illustrates our dearth of understanding about the culture of the Minoans, and the quest that many are on to try to understand this culture that seems to slip beneath the waves of history in the 15th century BC. The decipherment of Linear A would lead us to a better understanding of Crete, the Mediterranean, and the processes of the earliest European civilizations.
The Minoan civilization flourished on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea from roughly 2050 BC to 1450 BC. It has been theorized that Minoan people emigrated to the island from mainland Asia sometime during the 2nd millenium BC.
Culturally, it was far ahead of many of its counterparts; great palaces, flourishing trade, beautiful art and craftsmanship, and a written language all exemplified the great intellectual achievements of this civilization. The language of the ancient Minoans has been given the rather dour appellation of Linear A. A mysterious language in itself which linguists struggle to even transliterate, let alone understand, Linear A's syllabary (inventory of signs which correspond to sounds) was utilized in the written forms of Ancient Greek and Old Cypriot (the language spoken on ancient Cyprus).
The downfall of Minoan civilization has been attributed to various factors, including the volcanic activity of the Mediterranean during the 15th century BC, which may have weakened the civilzation and allowed for the takeover of people from mainland Greece. In any case, during 1400s BC, culture on Crete drastically changed, with a new language, Ancient Greek, taking over the old syllabary of Linear A.
Fascinatingly, examples of Linear A has been discovered in Bulgaria, which may indicate early trade contacts, or possibly the origin of the Minoans themselves.

Linear B and Related Scripts by John Chadwick (includes inscriptions in the deciphered Linear B [thought to be Ancient Greek in Linear A syllabary] and Linear A itself)
Minoans:Life in Bronze Age Crete by Rodney Castleden (on social life and culture)
The Foundations of Palatial Crete; a Survey of Crete in the Early Bronze Age by Keith Branigan
Minoan Religion: Ritual, Image and Symbol by Nanno Marinatos (on religion, evidently)
Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History by Kenneth D.S. Lapatin (on the forgery of the Snake Goddess, said to be an authentic Minoan statuette. Sounds really fascinating on modern views of the past and subjectivity in culture studies)

History (beautiful art and artists renderings of the Palace era) (wordy and informative about the most flourishing Minoan era and other parts of Minoan civilization)
Linear A (complex but good info on Linear A in all its permutations)