Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

24 AUGUST, 2011

1493: An Uncommon History of How Columbus Changed the World

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What events from half a millennium ago can teach us about the globalization debate today.

In 2005, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann came to be regarded as the most ambitious and sweeping look at pre-Columbus North and South America ever published. This month, Mann is back with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created — a fascinating look at one of the lesser-known, lesser-considered aspects of what happened when Columbus and his crew set foot on American soil: the environmental upheaval that began as they brought plants, animals and diseases that forever changed the local biosphere, both in America and in Europe once the explorers returned to the Old World. Known as The Columbian Exchange, this process is considered the most important ecological event since the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the paradoxes at its heart echo today’s polarized views of globalization as either a great cross-pollinator or a great contaminator of cultures.

From the outset globalization brought enormous economic gains and ecological and social tumult that threatened to offset those gains. It is true that our times are different from the past. Our ancestors did not have the Internet, air travel, genetically modified crops, or computerized international stock exchanges. Still, reading the accounts of the creation of the world market one cannot help hearing echoes — some muted, some thunderously loud — of the disputes now on the television news. Events four centuries ago set a template for events we are living through today.”

Mann illustrates the fascinating interplay of organisms within ecological systems and the intricate yet powerful ways in which it impacts human civilization. For instance, when the Spaniards brought plantains to South America, they also brought the tiny scaling insects that live in their roots, which turned out to be delicious new food for the local fire ants. This led to a plague-sized explosion in fire ant population, which forced the terrified Spaniards to live on the roofs of their ant-infested houses and eventually drove them off the islands.

The most striking impact of The Columbian Exchange, however, comes from epidemiology. Because pre-Columbus America had no domesticated animals, it also had no animal-borne diseases. But when the Europeans came over, they brought with them enough disease to wipe out between two thirds and 90% of people in the Americas over the next 150 years — the worst demographic catastrophe in history by a long stretch. While early diaries mentioned these epidemics in describing life in the 1500s and 1600, it wasn’t until the 1960s that epidemiologists and historians realized the true scale of the death toll in the decades following Columbus’s arrival.

NPR’s Fresh Air has an excellent interview with Mann.

From how tobacco became the world’s first global commodity to how forests were transformed by a new earthworm, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created will change the way you look at ecology, economy and epidemiology, and radically shift how you think about “local” and “global.”

Images via Wikimedia Commons

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23 AUGUST, 2011

11 Piano Lessons in 9 Minutes from Iconic Jazz Pianist Earl Hines

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A brief history of jazz piano techniques.

Earl “Fatha” Hines is considered by many the most influential jazz pianist in history. In this fantastic vintage television segment, Fatha explains his influences through delightful and fascinating biographical anecdotes and, in the process, offers what’s essentially 11 piano technique lessons in just 9 minutes. Marvel and enjoy:

For more on Fatha’s legacy and key role in shaping jazz, see Ted Gioia’s sweeping The History of Jazz, part of our (Almost) Everything You Need to Know about Culture in 10 Books omnibus.

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23 AUGUST, 2011

The Myth of Popular Culture: Why ‘Highbrow’ & ‘Lowbrow’ Don’t Work

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From Dante to Dylan, or what nineteenth-century phrenology has to do with the codification of bigotry.

We’ve come to accept intellectual stimulation and pop culture fetishism as diametric opposites, frequently pulling us, our attention, and our personal growth in conflicting directions. But, it turns out, this might be a tragic oversimplification at best, if not a complete fallacy. In The Myth of Popular Culture: From Dante to Dylan, cultural critic Perry Meisel offers a bold defense of pop culture by arguing against the traditional, socialized distinction between “high” and “low” culture through a thoughtful analysis of three hallmarks of contemporary culture — the American novel, Hollywood, and British and American rock music. He traces back some 500 years of influences, sociopolitical anxieties and historical events, from the evolution of music genres like folk and soul to the legacy of political ideologies like Marxism to the social footprint of Freudian theory, ultimately showing how Bob Dylan — the epitome of pop culture — not only blurred but fully erased the line between “high” and “low” culture.

Meisel takes the seminal work of philosopher and critic Theodor Adorno and practically turns it against itself:

The myth of pop culture — Adorno’s myth — is that it is not dialectical. The truth is that it is. Like high art, pop, too — contra Adorno — has a conversation both with its sources, which it revises and transforms, and with cultural authority as a whole, which it also revises and transforms.”

(This idea, of course, isn’t entirely new. Five years prior to Meisel, Steven Johnson argued in Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter that IQ scores in the west have risen steadily in the past few decades not merely despite but because of pop culture.)

Among Meisel’s fascinating semi-asides is a discussion of the origins of “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” rooted in some of humanity’s most shameful episodes of socially condoned bigotry.

The terms ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ come from phrenology, the nineteenth-century science of regarding the shape of the skull as a key to intelligence. A ‘high’ forehead meant intelligence; a ‘low’ one meant stupidity. Phrenology thrived as a popular science in the late nineteenth century and led eventually to the racial theories of the Nazis, for whom the Jewish cranium and pale, sunken face were clear indications of Jewish racial inferiority.”

Dense but remarkably articulate, with a formidable citations list spanning from the Sex Pistols to Susan Sontag, The Myth of Popular Culture spins a fascinating story of how our common culture came to be and why we should think twice about our intellectual reservations towards the products of pop culture.

HT The Atlantic; image via The Library of Congress

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