Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What The Hell Happened To the Maya?

Map of the Mayan Civilization, made by Microsoft, for some bizarre reason.

Maya History And Religion
by J. Eric S. Thompson
University of Oklahoma
p. 1979
Civilization of the American Indian Series No. 99

   I wouldn't say I was changed by my trip to the Andes.  That shit is amazing, but it's more in the category "delivered as expected" than "blew my mind."  If you are talking Pre-Columbian civilizations, there are really three ballers:  Aztecs, Mayans & Incans.  Unlike the Aztecs and Incans, who were in their "classic" phases when the Spanish showed up, the Mayans were in  a "Post-Classic" configuration.  Generations of western social scientists have created a narrative of collapse to explain the transition from the classic to post-classic phase, but in a move academically analogous to what has happened in the world of post-Roman European historical scholarship, the recent trend has been to paint a more nuanced picture of the move from "classic" to "post-classic."

  Thompson, writing over 30 years ago, was in the vanguard of this reappraisal.  Unfortunately, Maya History and Religion is so old that Thompson feels it necessary to make an academically intensive case to rehabilitate the post-classic era.  Throughout this book, Thompson makes the case that the dissappearance of classic Mayan civilization was most likely a case of peasant revolt against the priestly hierarchy.  In this way, the idea that Classic Maya is to Post-Classic Maya as the Roman Emprie was to the Early Midddle Ages has evolved along the same lines (from a view that civilization really fell apart to a view that the impact on day-to-day existence was not that big a deal.)

   Thompson also makes the case that post-classic Mayan civilization integrated heavy Nahuatl (Aztec/Mexican) influence via conquering elites.  Thompson painstakingly documents the existence of Mexican influence in post-classic Mayan codices and the names of individuals documented in Spanish archives of the 16th and 17th century.  This relationship, between Nahua and Mayan, is something that bears further investigation- a cursory search of Amazon revealed no other books on the subject- so I'm going to keep that in mind.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Media & The American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan

Media and the American Mind:
From Morse To McLuhan
By Daniel J. Czitrom
p. 1982
University of North Carolina Press

    This is a book I've had lying around for half a year- I know that because when I went to look it up on Amazon, Amazon kindly informed me that I ordered it in July, 2010.  One of the problems with reading books as supposed to listening to music or collecting stamps is that reading books takes time and mental energy- they really can stack up if you aren't careful.

  Media an the American Mind is an interesting attempt at explaining the way new media were received by the public and by intellectuals- the first part discusses the reception of the telegraph, motion picture s and radio.  The second part talks about the ways intellectuals interpreted these advances in communications technology.  In the second part,  Czitrom discusses the theories of Charles Horton Coole, Joohn Dewey, Robert E. Park, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan.  Of those thinkers, I was only familiar with Dewey and McLuhan, so it was interesting to read about the lesser known communications theories of Cooley, Park & Innis.  Innis in particular comes off as the real inspiration for McLuhan's vogue theories of the 1960s.

  What comes across clearly in Media & The American Mind is the paralyzing fear that most intellectuals felt about the prospect of mass media.  Perhaps a more interesting book would have been on the methods by which businesses convinced the public that Mass Culture was something to be valued.  Oh wait- that book was written, and it's called Land of Desire by William Leach.

  Ultimately, Media and the American Mind felt dated- very "Media Studies" very 80s- I'd much rather talk about audiences than media.  McLuhan: I just want to punch him the face, what a doof.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Use of History

The Use of History
by A.L. Rowse
p. 1946
Collier Books Edition

   Why know history?  It's a fair question.  We live in an age dominated by hard science, the so-called "social sciences" are almost at the point of losing their status as "science."  So while, genetics tells us more about who are as human beings, the American Anthropological Association is squabbling over whether to use the word "science" in their mission statement.  It's no wonder that many people graduate from college without ever taking a serious look at history as a discipline or interest.

   And yet.... I've found history particularly relevant to my own path.  Among all the sciences: be they hard or soft, none is so accessible as history- everyone knows something about history and people talk about history all the time.  Rowse makes this point, among many others.  One of the best chapters discusses how the purpose of education is to teach people how to function in society and that history, with it's study of people, their motives and their actions, create an ability in students to make judgments about people they encounter in real life.

     Rowse adopts a smart stance in between the economic determinism of Marxism and the lockstep schematics of Positivism:  History consists of facts, and these facts have reality because people agree of the existence of those facts.  However, it is not possible to extrapolate from generally agreed facts to the presence of historical "laws" that mirror the laws of hard science.  Rowse, writing at the end of World War II was smart enough to rebut the ideas of Social Darwinism and anticipate the flaws of French Post-Modernism.

   History is relevant, because it shows us how people acted in the past.  All other things being equal, humans will tend to act in the same way, even if we can't predict how an individual will act in a given situation.

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