Sunday, March 08, 2009

American Tropicalia plus Gil and Caetano Veloso

This is an update to some older posts. The idea of Tropicalia in Brazil was to adapt the intellectual and cultural traditions of other countries to Brazilian situations in order to produce something that both fit reality and proved that Brazil was more than a third world country. This was manifested through music and some art, with the music being a combination of a celebration of local variations with philosophy and other things usually associated with 'high' culture. Way back in 2003 I wrote that the U.S. needed its own version of Tropicalia. At that point it seemed kind of insane no doubt to say it.

Six short (well not so short) years ago the U.S. was still a premier global power, was occupying Iraq and Afghanistan with virtually no limitations on its activity. U.S. culture, although taking a hit on the international level from Bush's policies, was still the culture of globalization and free trade, still the culture that was eroding other cultures. In other words, the U.S. wasn't in a position of having to prove itself to the world; the world still had to bend to the U.S. How times have changed. Our standing in the world has fallen to an extreme degree and our economic model has failed. It's becoming clear that the U.S. can't unilaterally set terms any more but instead has to be the one that asks others for help. We've become much more like a supplicant than we were back then.
This puts us in a position where an American Tropicalia may in fact be a good and viable option.

Basically, the idea is to improve the U.S. by introducing the U.S. to world culture and to philosophical and other currents contained in that culture, as well as to replace the nationalistic idea of the U.S.A. in big letters with something more humble and reflective of American reality. Of course part of this includes communicating socialist ideas to the U.S. in a way that's non-dogmatic and viable, but it isn't just a front for political organizing. Instead, it goes deeper than that. Our awareness of what transpired around the world essentially ended in 1812, when the war against Britain for final independence lead us into an insular and rabidly nationalistic phase that we've really never come out of, although the nationalism has come and gone in degree. Even before that it seemed that we had hit a philosophical cul-de-sac, being stuck in Enlightenment thought about the self and society, about science, about life, without almost any of the criticism of that position that was raging in Europe in the early 19th century translating over. About the only writer that did seem to make the trip across the Atlantic was Edmund Burke, whose "Reflections on the Revolution in France" influenced American conservatism profoundly. Isolated people translated some of what was happening in Europe over to us, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, but no one followed up on what Emerson was doing, and contemporaries who have since become popular, like Thoreau, were much more obscure in their own day. Awareness of what was going on on the other side of the Atlantic was thus somewhat limited.

There was a sort of explosion of ideas around the time of the Russian Revolution, and enough time had progressed by then that folks who were immigrating had already had contact with socialist ideas in the old country and brought them with them; however, I think the influence of these folks was mainly in their own communities and in ethnic newspapers printed in their native tongues; they don't seem to have 'infected' the U.S. with the idea of socialism, which was part of the great xenophobic fear that swept the U.S. after the first World War. An American Tropicalia would change all that.

The way at least that I proceed forward with this is to start at the first disjuncture between American and European ideas, the criticism of the Enlightenment manifested in the Romantic period in Germany, and then somewhat later in France to a limited extent, and attempt to translate some of what they were saying into American terms in a way that's relevant to American reality. I tend to stay away from English Romanticism, which people are familiar with because of linguistic purposes, because it was mostly literary and not as philosophically geared up as was the movement in continental Europe. Wordsworth in "Lyrical Ballads" and Coleridge in general are good. The one exception in philosophy seems to be Thomas Carlyle, who did echo much of what was going on in Europe in his writings. So what does that mean in practice?

Kant, Schelling, Fichte, Schlegal, Novalis. Some Hegel. Their critiques leading into idealism, that also consist of the core Romantic philosophers, are the ones that are valuable. It's a steep learning curve though. There's also a tenuous connection to Marx through the ideas dealt with in Sidney Hook's book "From Hegel to Marx", still a classic.

Possibly there also needs to be a revival of American thought that's been forgotten that's congruent with all of this. A great example is that of the Pragmatic philosophy of William James and John Dewey. Although they may have protested loudly against the idea, they demonstrably were influenced by the Hegelians and the people who came after Hegel who mixed his ideas with the previous idealists, the other names on the list. John Dewey in particular was influenced by them. The red scare did Dewey in, but even before then he had, at least in my opinion, become too popular in the way he wrote his books and had started to make broad generalizations about topics that were originally much more subtle and complex.

Anyways, the 19th century is the treasure trove for information that could spark a revival of American thought.

About Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, the two original Tropicalia innovators: originally I had planned this post to be shorter. All I was going to say is that Gil's statement that Caetano could be anything, a professor, but chose to be a musician, while Gil was fated to be a musician only is contradicted by the fact that in the late period of Tropicalia Gil was giving statements about musical movements that quoted Heidegger. The idea of who is 'fated' to be a professor must be fluid indeed.

No comments: