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What I’m Reading: The Need To Live In Style (from Albert Murray, THE OMNI-AMERICANS)

From Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy (1970), in The Blues Idiom and the Mainstream:

The Blues Idiom and the Mainstream

. . . In current social science usage,[1] the concept of survival technique has somehow become confused with technology and restricted to matters of food, clothing, and shelter. (Incidentally the most transparent fallacy of all white norm/black deviation folklore is its exaggeration of the cultural implications of the control by white people of the production and distribution of the creature comforts required for subsistence in the Temperate Zone.) Human survival, however, involves much more than biological prolongation. The human organism must be nourished and secured against destruction, to be sure, but what makes man[2] human is style. Hence the crucial significance of art in the study of human behavior: All human effort beyond the lowest level of the struggle for animal subsistence is motivated by the need to live in style.

Certainly the struggle for political and social liberty is nothing if not a quest for freedom to choose one’s own way or style of life. Moreover, it should be equally as obvious that there can be no such thing as human dignity and nobility without a consummate, definite style, pattern, or archetypal image. Economic interpretations of history notwithstanding, what activates revolutions is not destitution (which is most often leads only to petty thievery and the like) but intolerable systems and methods–intolerable styles of life. . . .

. . . As an art form, the blues idiom by its very nature goes beyond the objective of making human existence bearable physically or psychologically. The most elementary and hence the least dispensable objective of all serious artistic expression, whether aboriginal or sophisticated, is to make human existence meaningful. Man’s[3] primary concern with life is to make it as significant as possible, and the blues are part of this effort.

— Albert Murray, The Blues Idiom and the Mainstream
In The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy (1970), pp. 54-55, 57.

  1. [1][The opening section of the book is really fascinating. The argument in this section is also notable for its especially unrelenting hostility towards efforts (by social science technicians, etc.) to introduce quantitative social science findings into the public debate over social issues. There are some reasons why staking out this opposition was understandable, and productive, within the specific context of Murray’s argument and the rising strains of technocratic liberalism and neoconservatism within the public intellectualism in mid-late 1960s America. (You can see some similar strains of argument raising parallel concerns in something like young Noam Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals, for example.) On the other hand, on the whole I think that nevertheless, on reflection, introducing quantitative social science findings into the public debate over social issues is often a pretty good idea, and the efforts to do this at the time deserved plenty of vigorous criticism but also a lot of attention and sympathy. —R.G.]
  2. [2][Sic. —R.G.]
  3. [3][Sic. —R.G.]

1819, 1719 or 1619?

This is from the generally really excellent Prologue to Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998). Many Thousands Gone is and remains one of the best, must-read books on the history of American slavery. Not because it proves an important point; it does prove some important points, but the reason it’s a must-read is that it very seriously, and thoroughly, and thoughtfully complicates an important point that is all too often over-simplified.

Prologue: Making Slavery, Making Race

Of late, it has become fashionable to declare that race is a social construction. In the academy, this precept has gained universal and even tiresome assent, as geneticists and physical anthropologists replace outmoded classifications of humanity with new ones drawn from recent explorations of the genome.[1] But while the belief that race is socially constructed has gained a privileged place in contemporary scholarly debates, it has won few practical battles. Few people believe it; fewer act on it. The new understanding of race has changed behavior little if at all.

Perhaps this is because the theory is not quite right. Race is not simply a social construction; it is a particular kind of social construction–a historical construction.[2] Indeed, like other historical constructions–the most famous of course being class–it cannot exist outside of time and place. To follow Edward Thompson’s celebrated discussion of class, race is also a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and atomize its structure. Race, no less than class, is the product of history, and it only exists on the contested social terrain in which men and women struggle to control their destinies.[3] The reluctance to embrace the new understanding of race as socially constructed derives neither from a commitment to an older biological classification system, which in truth is no better understood than the newer genetics, nor from a refusal to acknowledge the reality of an ideological logical construct. Instead, it derives from the failure to demonstrate how race is continually redefined, who does the defining, and why. This book is in part an attempt to address that problem, first by recognizing the volatility of the experiences which collectively defined race, and then by suggesting how they shifted over the course of two centuries.

Many Thousands Gone is a history of African-American slavery in mainland North America during the first two centuries of European and African settlement. Like all history, it is a study of changing relationships. The emphasis on change is important. . . .

— Ira Berlin (1998), Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Belknap Press / Harvard University Press; Kindle Locations 25-36).

. . .

Slave society in mainland North America did not cease to change in the first decades of the nineteenth century when this book concludes. Historians who have tried to hold time constant in order to explain the complex interactions of master and slave or the development of the slave personality have inevitably found their investigations stymied and their conclusions stereotyped by their very method. Even the most complex social relationships become caricatures when men and women-subalterns or superiors-are frozen in time. In the study of slavery, such static visions rob both slaves and slaveholders of their agency or, more strangely, allows agency but denies that their struggle changed the basic constellation of social relations. If the masters’ hegemony is immutable, slaves and their owners are reduced to stock figures of the scholarly imagination. In mainland North America, slaves (like their owners) were simply not the same people in 1819 that they had been in 1719 or 1619, although the origins and color of the slave population often had not changed.

Indeed, the meaning of race itself changed as slavery was continually reconstructed over the course of those two centuries. Projecting the regimen of seventeenth-century tobacco production, the aesthetics of African pottery, or the eschatology of animistic religion into the nineteenth century is no more useful than reading the demands of blackbelt cotton production, the theology of African-American Christianity, and the ethos of antebellum paternalism back into the seventeenth century. It is important to remember that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when this book concludes, the vast majority of black people, slave and free, did not reside in the blackbelt, grow cotton, or subscribe to Christianity. That the character of slave life in North America was reversed a half century later is a striking commentary on a period that historians have represented as stable maturity. This radical transformation affirms the notion that slavery’s history can be best appreciated in terms of generations of captivity and the many thousands who suffered through the long night of American enslavement. Although it would take more than another other half century before the last slave in the United States could intone the words, No more auction block … No more hundred lash … No more Mistress call, the words of the great spiritual would remind all of the many thousands before the day of jubilee.

— Ira Berlin (1998), Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Belknap Press / Harvard University Press; Kindle Locations 195-208).

  1. [1]For a powerful statement, see Barbara Jeanne Fields, Race and Ideology in American History, in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds., Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward (New York, 1982), 143-77. Also see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., Race, Writing, and Difference (Chicago, 1986), 1-20; Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity and Diaspora, in Jonathan Rutherford, ed., Identity (London, 1990), 222-37; and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race, Signs, 17 (1992), 251-74. A handy discussion of the new biology can be found in Jonathan M. Marks, Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History (New York, 1995); also see Steven Jay Gould, Why We Should Not Name Races–A Biological View, in Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History (New York, 1977).
  2. [2]Although Barbara Fields’s original formulation and later elaborations on the meaning of race (Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America, NLR, 181 [1990], 85-118) were aggressively historical, not all scholars have taken that tack. See, for example, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (London, 1986), which situates race in a specific historical setting but ignores the processes that are continually transforming it.
  3. [3]E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1964), 9.

Bureaucratic Rationality: Filthy Warwickshire v. Guerrilla Public Service Edition

Shared Article from bbc.com

Warwickshire County Council tells man to stop cleaning filthy si…

Cory Poynton is told by Warwickshire County Council that he his putting himself in danger.


A man who scrubbed filthy road signs until they were gleaming has been told to stop by a council.

Cory Poynton, 27, started cleaning dirt-covered signs in Warwickshire a few weeks ago after noticing them across the county.

Since then, more than 3,500 people have reacted to his Facebook post that shows the results of using detergent and a cloth in his spare time.

However, Warwickshire County Council has since told Mr Poynton that it could not support his work because cleaning close to roads put him in considerable danger.

— Alice Cullinane, Man told to stop cleaning filthy signs by council
BBC (10 May 2024).

Why? Good lord, no it doesn’t.

On Facebook, more than 3,500 people reacted to Mr Poynton’s post showing the results of using detergent and a cloth in his spare time.

I see dirty signs all the time so I thought it’s about time someone such as myself takes action — otherwise, who will do it? he said.

Users on Facebook praised Mr Poynton for being a local “hero” who did “tremendous work” to keep roads safe.

— Alice Cullinane, Man told to stop cleaning filthy signs by council
BBC (10 May 2024).

Once again, with apologies to H.L. Mencken and Max Weber, I think our theoretical lexicon needs some revision. Thus:

Bureaucratic rationality, n.: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy without a license.

See also:

Technological Civilization is Awesome (New Epicurean Scrolls Just Dropped, Cont’d)

Here’s some more from the ongoing use of hyperspectral imaging and transformer-based machine learning to decipher the Herculaneum scrolls (technological civilization is awesome). Researchers have been working closely on a scroll of Philodemus’s History of the Academy for a couple years now; here’s more on some newly deciphered passages that just dropped, in The Guardian:

Shared Article from the Guardian

Plato's final hours recounted in scroll found in Vesuvius ash

Newly deciphered passages outline Greek philosopher’s burial place and describe critique of slave musician

Lorenzo Tondo @ theguardian.com

Shared Article from the Guardian

"Second renaissance": tech uncovers ancient scroll secrets of Pl…

Researchers and Silicon Valley are using tools powered by AI to read what had long been thought unreadable

Ian Sample @ theguardian.com


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