There Is No Philosophy In California
August 29, 2021 1:16 PM   Subscribe

In California, as in the Transvaal, there is this peculiar experience of feeling indigenous down to the soles of one’s feet. But this is a feeling that, however strong, however poetically true, can only be maintained through sheer ahistorical ignorance, or, if this ignorance should regrettably be lost, can only be made explicit and defended through specious ideology. Whether a descendent of the Voortrekkers or of the Donner Party, it is at once both manifestly obvious and completely implausible that one belongs —cosmically, politically, physiologically— where one lives. from What Was California? by by Justin E. H. Smith [Berfrois] [Previously]
posted by chavenet (35 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I think the author is right about the Joan Didion, end of the Continent thing though...
"Discussion of how California has 'changed,' then, tends locally to define the more ideal California as that which existed at whatever past point the speaker first saw it: Gilroy as it was in the 1960s and Gilroy as it was fifteen years ago and Gilroy as it was when my father and I ate short ribs at the Milias Hotel are three pictures with virtually no overlap, a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it."
-Joan Didion
posted by clavdivs at 1:46 PM on August 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

So wait, who are the equivalent of the Boers? The White settlers who took over the state from the earlier Mexican rulers, or the Mexicans who took over from the Native populations, or the Native populations who moved down after crossing the Bering Strait and started eating the local animals? Is this going to be on the final exam?
posted by PhineasGage at 2:42 PM on August 29, 2021 [9 favorites]

Thanks for sharing this essay -- it was good food for thought. It prompted me to reread Ursula K. Le Guin's "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be," which shares some of Smith's themes but wanders a bit farther, into questions about utopia and how it is discovered, forgotten, and defined. It's hard to find a single pull-quote -- it's a wide-ranging essay -- but perhaps this will give a taste of the thing:
My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to do is figure out how to put a pig on the tracks.
posted by ourobouros at 2:44 PM on August 29, 2021 [15 favorites]

So wait, who are the equivalent of the Boers?

they're over in utah - but that's a totally different story in a different state

i think the whole california thing is insufferably pretentious - the reason there is no "there there" is because people don't want there to be a there there - they want to be rootless but part of the land, they want to be individuals in a freewheeling culture without having to submit to a culture, they want to be all future and no history

above all, they want the rest of the country to buy into it - the place where you can be really, really free - if you can afford the housing

the paradox of being indigenous for the majority is that if they think they are, they're not - and if they don't think about it much at all, they probably are
posted by pyramid termite at 3:19 PM on August 29, 2021 [10 favorites]

The largest item in the first California budget was payouts for bounties on the heads of indigenous people….
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:52 PM on August 29, 2021 [12 favorites]

I've never lived in a part of the country where the question "What does it mean to be a resident of this state" was considered a subject of serious philosophical inquiry.

Not having been a resident in California, it would not be fair for me to speculate whether this means all of my life has been spent in lands of inadequate consideration or whether Californians suffer an excess of self-regard.
posted by at by at 4:04 PM on August 29, 2021 [13 favorites]

Heh, get this account of the Sydney Ducks by Herbert ("Gangs of New York") Asbury:
There, in particular, gathered the ruffianly larrikins from the frontier towns of Australia, and the escaped convicts and ticket-of-leave men from the British penal settlements at Sydney, in New South Wales, and on the island of Tasmania, then called Van Diemen’s Land. This wave of undesirable immigration, which to all intents and purposes was one hundred per cent criminal, began to wash against the shores of California about the middle of 1849 […]

By the early autumn of 1849 the arrivals from Australia had become so numerous, and so thoroughly dominated the underworld, that the district in which they congregated began to be known as Sydney-Town, and it was so called for some ten years. […]

The villainous inhabitants of Sydney-Town were popularly called Sydney Ducks or Sydney Coves, but more often the former. It was a common saying in early San Francisco, whenever a particularly atrocious crime was committed, that “the Sydney Ducks are cackling in the pond.”
How different, how very different, from the quiet and respectable reputation for which we Melbournians are known!
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:05 PM on August 29, 2021 [10 favorites]

I've never lived in a part of the country where the question "What does it mean to be a resident of this state" was considered a subject of serious philosophical inquiry.

California started, literally, as a utopian fantasy, and the gold rush which happened so fast on the heels of annexation after a war of conquest kept the mythology train running. And running. And running.
posted by tclark at 4:21 PM on August 29, 2021 [10 favorites]

They still don't know who the original inhabitants of California are, besides saber toothed tigers, megalodons, etc. It is still unknown how long people lived here before peoples came here, possibly over the north pole, the Navajo state clearly they came down the front of the Rockies, out of the North West Territories. They speak a language in which the eldest can communicate with elder Mongollians and Siberians. That is just them. A lot is unknown because no one really wants to know it. I was born in California, we returned here again and again from Military posts overseas. I am a Californian through and through, and according to a DNA test one of my children took, embarassingly white. I am of Okie stock, and Alabama stock which migrated inland from an atlantic port, in the late 1800's. I am related to Mary Dyer, the first woman hanged in America, by the Puritans, for preaching Quakerism, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I am by birth a Daughter of the American Revolution. Whee! California was owned by the Spanish Royal Family, for a long time. South America was run by indigenous Royal Families for a long time. Time is the string that runs through the beads in the neclace of our neverending hubris. I have not forgot the history we know, and I am attuned to the history that surfaces, of those who were crushed beneath the wheels, those held down in warped board shacks, worked to death, controlled by practitioners of foreign religion. They who worked for the Spanish overlords as peasants, still work as peasants in the San Joaquin. Believe me the overlords of this county does not want that system to change, it is wonderus watching the activists work for change here, and they are up against a tsunami of oil money, defense money, big ag money, and all of the above are out of water. Waterless bastards want to sue the Governor of California for ending fracking, putting what ever kind of brines they want, mercury laden brines from Great Salt Lake, even, way down under ground where the primordial waters flow, they can't trace. The county Supervisors were opposing Commercial Solar Installations if the state doesn't reward big oil in the same way, with the same tax benefits. Jugheads all. So the question of the dead, the ramaining, the cultures lost, the natural land use lost we got some giant agriculture here, unbelievable to behold. But regardless of all posturing and pouting from any side of the situation that is California, I love this place, it is in my blood.
posted by Oyéah at 4:56 PM on August 29, 2021 [23 favorites]

this guy and quotation marks should spring for a room
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:32 PM on August 29, 2021 [8 favorites]

"Bakersfield grandchild of Baptist dustbowl migrants from Arkansas, the people whom John Steinbeck revealingly called California’s “harvest *****”. (this quote is copied from the FPP.) Yeah, my dad came here in 1942 at 16 years old driving two couples over from Arkansas, because grandpa was kicked out of Oklahoma in 1930 for selling booze with Baby Face Nelson's gang. Anyway, he drove a grader and put in grapevines for two years before joining the army at 18.

This writer took a couple of swipes, and revelations at Kamala Harris, and another, I have to go back and find. They kind of reveal the author's political persuasion, and describing the Vapid Intellect that brought us the Internet and all that came with it, no vapidity was manifest.

They call New Orleans, The Big Easy, Cali is the even bigger easy. Cali comes not from Caliphate, but from Spanish for heat. Unless you want to go with the East Indian goddess of destruction...This dude's piece is very readable, with good flow, but this dude, lives in Paris.

The spiritual aspect of California, Bakersfield has several large Mosques, several large Gurdwaras, and there are 155 religious private schools in the Bakersfield area of Kern county. Schools of all kinds. This climate is Cali all the way, not as temperate as the Mexican coast, but a lot nicer than say, Iraq in the summer, or Ethiopia. There are so many peoples here, who call this state home. Then there are Mexicans and Central Americans from every type of urban and rural origin, so the fireworks go off all the time, to celebrate the days of Saints and Special Cultural Heroes from who knows where, it is a full time feature. The bodegas are the best, running out door barbecues year round. Taco Tuesday, a lot of people buy huge numbers of one dollar tacos, and freeze them for all week. I am guilty of buying a half dozen tamales from Grandma's over two blocks, on $1.50 tamale Thursdays. Hell yes, I love California. It is what it is. Beautiful people of every sort come here and culturally it is brilliantly colored, and vibrant.
posted by Oyéah at 5:33 PM on August 29, 2021 [13 favorites]

Is there philosophy anywhere? Having lived in California, since I was seven, seeing first hand the summer of love, worked in some of the new and exciting first personal computer companies, hearing over and over how we (people in California) will be changing the world, and now looking back and seeing little or nothing of that great optimism actually come to pass, I really don’t understand how anyone could assume that California had any great message of salvation to share with the rest of the world. Yeah, we became the home to many cults, most of which ended in infamy. A lot of the technology companies were born here, and are now either sucking us dry of our personal autonomy, bastions of racism, sexism, and any other negative -ism you want to add, or just your typical home of capitalist bastards. I even worked at a company that was both one of the first personal computer companies and was run by a whole gaggle of cult followers of a California born cult. Living in the Bay Area, I at least had access to culture - foreign films, libraries and bookstores, music, etc. And all that made me appreciate all those other places and peoples around the world. And working in the tech world gave me opportunities to travel to some of those other places to experience their culture first hand. Yes, I have lived most of my life in California, but I am not a Californian. I don’t even know what one of those might be….
posted by njohnson23 at 6:00 PM on August 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

They kind of reveal the author's political persuasion...

California is a pretty big boogey-man for a certain type of Republican, and has been for quite a long time, even back when they ran the place. Now that the GOP is practically nonexistent in the state, it's taken an even larger share of their hate-minds.
posted by aramaic at 6:13 PM on August 29, 2021 [8 favorites]

Excuse me while I generalize.

I've only ever travelled through California. But one thing that came clear pretty quickly (particularly in LA) is that there are basically two kinds of people there:

- those who were born there (or arrived as small children)

- those who who came chasing a dream (or tagging along with someone who was)

And let's just say that I've found the former a helluva lot more grounded, reliable, sane than the latter. Though the latter have been more fun to party with.
posted by philip-random at 6:14 PM on August 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

Oyéah, I saw that "California state assemblyman known fondly as 'Downtown' Willie Brown, a towering political personality in Sacramento who some time later would become Kamala Harris’s mentor and lover" bit, too. So Harris's success rests on a former 'mentor and lover' and not her own achievements, and apparently, though Brown enjoyed four decades as a well-connected California politician, dating Harris for less than two years ('94-'95) is his claim to fame -- when, if you want to credit Brown with launching someone's political career, Brown's fundraiser Gavin Newsom is right there.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:34 PM on August 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

I was hoping this was going to be about Foucault doing acid in Death Valley. I was very disappointed.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:39 PM on August 29, 2021 [9 favorites]

as a lifelong californian, and a wannabe intellectual at that, i would like to emphasize that not all of us are as obsessed with the navel-gazey, interminable gobbledygook evident in this piece, nor have all of us moved to paris. please come visit.
posted by wibari at 11:00 PM on August 29, 2021 [11 favorites]

...the whole California thing....

Each thing is ...

My California in the early to mid-1950s reached from the Colorado River to Redding. We followed crops. We traveled up and down the San Joaquin Valley's east side on the old Highway 99, built along an old Yokuts trail, from Bakersfield to Sacramento. The west side was still alkali flats, as yet unwatered by the Delta Mendota Canal. Interstate 5 was not yet a gleam in Eisenhower's eye. We lived in our car between labor camps; the camps were rows of one-room, single-walled huts, most with running water and a sink; in the middle of these camps, a gang shower with a thin plywood wall separates the men's side from the women's. Everyone used outhouses; turn the wooden block to secure the door while you do your thing; bring your own toilet paper, and check for spiders before sitting down. I would not see a flush toilet until I started school. I attended 26 elementary schools.

By junior high school, my California had transformed into a huge city of nearly 50,000 people, Fresno. I lived in a house that had a kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom with a flush toilet, a clawfoot tub, and a porcelain sink. We had glass windows and a front and back door, both of which locked. I worked fieldwork in the summers to buy school clothes. I can still remember what new Levis smelled like if I close my eyes, and I can feel their stiff fabric under my hands. I got new shoes once a year with the money I earned in the fields. By this time, my father had been out of the picture for as long as I could remember, and my mother and I took food stamps and food supplements to live. I didn't really understand that we were poor. This was the best place I'd ever lived in.

By high school, my California was Scout camps in the Sierras, Cadet Corps jamboree in Kings County, bus trips to Madera to play football against our traditional rivals. By that time, I understood what a palimpsest California was, one culture written over another until the basic structure was buried under so many layers, so many layers. By the time I graduated from high school Ike's wet dream had come true, and the new freeway replaced the old 99 Highway, and the creeping horror from over the southern ranges began to make itself known. Still, this was before Interstate 5 had made its appearance.

I was still 17 years old when I joined the army in September of 1963. When I returned in 1971, the California I knew was no longer there. So I won't carry on about it here.

The Sierras held out for a while. I haunted the Sierras until the year 1999. Then I left California for good. Not a palimpsest. I was wrong about that. California was more like the dimensions that mathematicians go on about, all folded into one another, each one unavailable to the others. I never saw the other Californias, but I still sorely miss the ones I knew. My connection was, and remains, proprietary. It was mine while it lasted, and I pitied the tourists who zoomed through my state, in and out, without ever really knowing what I knew. Those memories are dear to me and a curse. Overcrowded, overused, a national codeword for anybody's one-liners. Everybody keeps wanting California, it seems, though nobody will ever have it again.
posted by mule98J at 11:34 PM on August 29, 2021 [53 favorites]

The sheer number of songs about moving to California, or about California, or have California in the title, or are literally just called 'California' says something about the myth.

The excellent 2007 BBC documentary Hotel California - LA from the Byrds to the Eagles starts out with a wave of idealistic young musicians moving to LA in the 60s, and by the late 70s half of them are jaded coked-up money-obsessed egomaniacs, or dead. The Gold Rush just plays out again and again.
posted by kersplunk at 12:41 AM on August 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've never lived in a part of the country where the question "What does it mean to be a resident of this state" was considered a subject of serious philosophical inquiry.

Not having been a resident in California, it would not be fair for me to speculate whether this means all of my life has been spent in lands of inadequate consideration or whether Californians suffer an excess of self-regard.
--at by

Oh I don't know about that. I had a friend who lived in this small town in Massachusetts, and his family wasn't considered a true resident of the town because they had only lived there for three generations, rather then the five or more of most of the other residents.

Most of the population of California from the 1800s onward has not been here for more than one generation, if even that, so you don't really hear this conversation of 'what is a true resident of the state'. Generation after generation of people move here--from the Gold Rush, to the defense industry, to the electronics and biotech industry, and now software engineers. (It took Covid to finally reverse the trend for a bit).

The people asking 'what does it mean to be a Californian' are the small minority, like the author, whose family have been here for generations.
posted by eye of newt at 2:01 AM on August 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you want a picture of the future, imagine the Red Hot Chili Peppers singing about California — forever.
posted by kersplunk at 3:31 AM on August 30, 2021 [12 favorites]

can we maybe have Tupac instead?
posted by philip-random at 7:10 AM on August 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

California is the most American state (perhaps besides Florida) in that it's living entirely on credit and projecting a fantasy of a world without discomfort. Water and climate change are the clearest writing on the wall but people want the dream of a shiny place without winter.
posted by Ferreous at 7:32 AM on August 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

MeFi: and a wannabe intellectual at that
posted by elkevelvet at 7:40 AM on August 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Thinking about it, I believe Lucifer is the most California-esqe series imaginable. Sure, there are folks murdering each other every week, but look: the neighborhoods look neat*, diversity is welcome**, and the people are just so interesting***. Why would the Devil choose to live in Los Angeles? Where else would he live?****

*OK, we get glimpses now and then of poor neighborhoods and the homeless. But hey! Even the homeless guy has an IMDB page! California, amirite?
**Dr Linda: "So my best friend is a demon and I'm having an angel baby. I guess this is just Tuesday for me now, right?"
***Athletic shoe designer. Influencer. Surfer dude. Pudding magnate. Fitness guru. And even Chloe was in movies once.
****Matt Groening, in his forward to his collection, Life in Hell, apologized for the title of the comic, "but I had just moved to LA."
posted by SPrintF at 8:52 AM on August 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Wow, can't believe it's already time for Metafilter's semi-regular dunking on California thread.

Now that the GOP is practically nonexistent in the state

Well, let me just bottle this away real quick and age it 'til around September 15th.
posted by FJT at 11:07 AM on August 30, 2021 [19 favorites]

California is the most American state (perhaps besides Florida) in that it's living entirely on credit and projecting a fantasy of a world without discomfort. Water and climate change are the clearest writing on the wall but people want the dream of a shiny place without winter.

That is... certainly a hot take right there. Maybe even as hot as it was in Mojave yesterday.
posted by ApathyGirl at 2:00 PM on August 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

I expected more Mike Davis references.

As a Canadian who has visited California several times since I was young, it holds a place in my imagination as a mystical and bizarre realm. With a beautiful and surreal natural landscape, an intriguing culture, a dark history, and a complex future.
posted by ovvl at 4:39 PM on August 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

"Justin" in the FPP links to the author's Wikipedia entry:

Justin Erik Halldór Smith (born July 30, 1972, in Reno, Nevada) is an American-Canadian professor
Another Smith California meditation: In the Valley (Originally appeared, June 19, 2011)
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:07 PM on August 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

I was born in California of midwestern escapees from their Iowa and Minnesota roots. Even though we moved to Texas in the 60s, I still maintained my identification with Los Angeles. When we arrived in Texas the 6 year old neighbor boy asked me if I was a Yankee or a Rebel, I replied that I was neither because I was from California and we wern't in it. Even though I was only able to go back to LA a few times I still identified with hippies, LSD, and social justice; all things I associated with my Californianess. Peace y'all!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:33 PM on August 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

Besides the insane recall election (in which a guy who doesn't believe in the ADA has odds to win), a California judge has ruled that UC-Berkley must (at least temporarily) freeze it's enrollment because students are an environmental menace under the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act). This might make you think UC-Berkley is one of the largest universities in the US, but it's #27, half as large as the top 5.

Oh and the Afghan refugees: "No California city made it on the State Department's list of cities welcoming for refugees because of housing costs. " Well, Sacramento sort of, but with caveats.

California is currently as big a mess as Texas or Florida.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:30 AM on September 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

No matter how big or small the cities, in America, Bakersfield, a relatively small city, ninth largest urban area in California, is the number two urban area of any size, for pedestrian fatalities. It is open season for pedestrians here. I love California, again, and I am not so sure this isn't a hate piece we are discussing. It is candified, dandified, but nevertheless sorta hateful. But we talk plenty of smack around here, about stuff, so I will suck it up, after all, I am just in California, I am not Calfornia, but on the severe down side, we are Kevin McCarthy's home town.
posted by Oyéah at 7:22 PM on September 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

"Bakersfield, a relatively small city...."

A former stomping ground for Buck Owens, Merle Haggard (who cursed the Kern River), and gateway to Tehachapi (don't pick up hitchhikers there). Also, back door to Lake Isabella and Whisky Town. Bakersfield also abuts Weedpatch, where, if you've never been there, you don't want to go.

You are of an age to remember The Grapevine and Tulare Lake, and you probably know how Tule Fog got its name. But, when someone asks me where I'm from, I honestly don't know what to tell them--then and when are two parts of some three-part word I can't quite reach.
posted by mule98J at 6:11 AM on September 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

I am only a little surprised that California hasn't mandated little tags for each person declaring that people may cause cancer.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:57 PM on September 3, 2021

Well, let me just bottle this away real quick and age it 'til around September 15th.

Well, how'd it taste?
posted by aramaic at 9:47 PM on September 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

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