Monday, October 15, 2007

Terroir and culture

letter to Whiting

"CULTURE," OF COURSE, is etymologically as well as (or indeed therefore) intimately related to terroir. "Culture" has as its root the Latin colere, to till. (I bet the older root, excuse the pun, has to do with lifting-together, which is what tilling describes.)

There's no doubt Culture is grown out of the soil, and that therefore Cultures are first and foremost site-specific. "One of my proudest self-descriptive sentences is: I am committed to two notions often thought to be mutually exclusive: regionalism and modernism." [Painters, Peasants, and Postmodernism: a reading of Wallace Stevens, the opening section of my Even Recent Cultural History: Place Art and Poetry in Ordinary Life, five lectures from the '80s. Available here.]

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area -- or, rather, looking back on it -- and then practicing journalistic criticism there, in the 1970s and '80s -- it was striking to contemplate the local culture: UC Berkeley and KPFA, San Francisco's museums, orchestra, and opera; the theaters which re-emerged in that period (Actors Workshop, ACT, Berkeley Rep and others) after the long quiescence of the Eisenhower-television darkness; the vital dance scene; the development of rock music; the flourishing of the Oakland Symphony during the Gerhard Samuel years; the painting scene so vitally centered on the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of Arts and Crafts and the university campuses at Berkeley and Davis...

In the years just after the end of WW II all this began to ferment quite headily in an atmosphere quite specifically local, for while there was plenty of international awareness (returning veterans, visiting artists, refugee immigrants, the World's Fair of 1939-1940) travel itself was neither fast nor easy; the jet engine hadn't yet entered passenger service). Northern California was its own country in many ways. Even Modernism, accelerated though its tempo necessarily is (see Matt K. Matsuda: The Memory of the Modern), had a homegrown flavor that linked it organically to a California past. (That past is discussed persuasively, as it applies to poetics, in William Everson: Archetype West: the Pacific Coast as a Literary Region [1976: Oyez Books].)

In the late 1960s, recalling activist memories from the Great Depression (see the General Strike of 1934), this Bay Area culture finally blended with youth activism, early stimulated by protest against Chinese activity in Tibet and the congressional Un-American Activities Committee, then more widely by sympathy with voter registration drives in the American southeast, finally by freedom-of-speech issues on campus, generated a truly powerful though never really co-ordinated (much less coherently conceived and stated) local mentality or sensibility whose ultimate contribution to a wider American character is of course yet to be seen.

(It is, however, incipient on the national body politic. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and California's two senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are all from the Bay Area. They are frequently divided on national and international questions but in that division reflect divisions in their own constituencies while remaining firmly on the left.)

I don't think "terroir" can yet be fully English: it's not quite fully immigrated. This may be my own bias: I simply want to deny to English any possibility of terroir having been adopted. There's much work to be done before it has become completely accepted. But I like it that it is so much in use, and that it carries with it subliminal resonances of terror. There is something profoundly disturbing about ploughing; turning the soil is hardly "cultivated," in one of the senses that word has unfortunately developed (dismissively discriminating; snooty).

The most vital forms of expression, and the most visceral forms of understanding from which such expression emerges and toward which it contributes, are chthonic (see Camille Paglia: Sexual Personae: Art & Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, chapter 1). Culture is terroir; "global culture" can only be a catchphrase.

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