California Studies Association

The latest news, events, and perspectives from the CSA


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EXHIBIT: “Berkeley, A City of Firsts” Berkeley History Center (through September 27)

The exhibit, “Berkeley A City of Firsts,” opened Sunday at the Berkeley History Center. Today the Chronicle ran a story on the exhibit that led with quotes from CSA’s own Chuck Wollenberg, author of the new book Berkeley: A City in History (UC Press, 2008). See an earlier 2002 full-text version of Wollenberg’s book here.

“Berkeley, a City of Firsts” runs through Sept. 27 at the Berkeley History Center, 1931 Center St., Berkeley.
Hours: 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more information, go here.


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EXHIBIT REVIEW: Gabriele Basilico’s Silicon Valley at SFMOMA (Through June 15)

In January two Bay Area scholars joined the Italian urban landscape photographer Gabriele Basilico for the opening of his SF MOMA show, “From San Francisco to Silicon Valley,” which runs through June 15. Fred Turner, a professor of communications at Stanford, and Dick Walker, a professor of geography at UC Berkeley, had less to say about the formal aspects of the work, its traditions, and Basilico’s artistic achievements than the social history of the landscape itself. Basilico’s work has focused on urban landscapes and architecture, especially peripheral parts of cities from the Middle East, Europe, and South America, for over 30 years.

Speaking through an interpreter, Basilico called Eugene Atget and Walker Evans his major influences in his body of work and in the show. He suggested that he is working in a post-1970s paradigm shift of contemporary landscape photography that is moving architecture and urban landscapes closer to traditional concepts of natural landscapes. The photographer has been the subject of several major international retrospectives. In addition, his work has been collected in several books: Cityscapes (2000), Berlin (2002), Bords de mer and Beirut 1991 (both in 2003), Scattered City (2005), Work Book: 1969-2006 (2007), and Silicon Valley ’07 (2008).

For the SFMOMA commission, Basilico would travel 5000 kilometers and shoot over 600 photos. In approaching the project, Basilico commented on his earlier work as trying to create a new vision for urban landscapes, removing subjectivity, “just looking,” and shying away from iconic portraits. He frequently worked on the outskirts of cities, preferring unfamiliar views and the transition zones between neighborhoods and industrial zones. He had never been to California, but researched the project from home: he suggested that while San Francisco was over-represented he could find no representative images of Silicon Valley. He chose highways 101 and 280 as a mode of “surveillance,” a paring of the western Bay Area landscape, and a “typology” of the landscape, as he called it. (A map of the Bay with the freeways highlighted is a centerpiece of the exhibit.) Basilico’s work at the freeways’ periphery from San Francisco to south San Jose lies on the borderlands of tourism, landscape painting, documentary photography, geographical surveillance, and architectural and planning history.

The scholars then applied social history to the landscape represented in Basilico’s work.

Turner challenged the audience to remember that the military-industrial complex built the Valley. It was a combination of major defense spending by a Cold War federal government, and the economy of WWII that boosted Sunbelt America. (The politics of the gun, bible, and sun belts extended all the way west to the Bay Area.) Radio research at Stanford in the 1910s and 1920s got things started, and by the time WWII came around, Stanford constituted the vanguard what Eisenhower deemed the “military-industrial complex,” the network that tied federal defense spending to local economic boosterism and the Cold War research university. Stanford not only served as an incubator for industrial R&D, but also as a political purveyor of local boosterism and development. Famously, Stanford’s research park embodied the collaboration between these three entities, and housed some of the early tycoons of the Cold War high tech industry. Stanford, of course, was the landlord and chief broker of these deals. In the talk, Turner reminded us that nearly every microchip that was produced from 1959 to 1972 was put into a missile, not a computer.

Walker’s assessment was more somber. Where are the people?, he asked. You have to look carefully. There are a few, but they are dwarfed by the software campus architecture of Oracle, views of new “smart growth” development in the old Japanese agriculture and garbage dumping ground of Alviso, the massive pavement curves of 101 and 280, and the proliferating black streaks of electrical wires that dominate Basilico’s landscapes. Where is East San Jose?, Walker asked. Somehow, Basilico and his MOMA contacts who guided him through his 101/280 tour of the Bay Area missed every community of color except the historical reference to Alviso, and the detached, birds-eye view of distant San Francisco and Valley neighborhoods. Most of the Peninsula is also absent in the show.

The tension of the visible and the invisible emerged as the focus of discussion.

Turner charged that the networks of capital that pervade grocery store and flower stand encounters around San Hill Road are virtually unknown. No one, except the extreme elite of venture capital, can track the networks of deal-making. The purveyors of big transnational capital interests command billions at the epicenter of San Hill Road, and paradoxically, the effects that handshakes go without input from the local communities on which they have an immense impact.

Walker charged that the invisible in Silicon Valley lies along the directives of race, class, gender. Walker, a Marx-influenced political economist, knows that the service sector in the Valley is powered by an underclass of people of color, and that many of these people live in East San Jose and the triangle from Story and White in the East, to 10th and Taylor in the Northwest, to King and Alum Rock in the West. They appear nowhere, not in body, or in reference, in the landscape of the built environment in Basilico’s work. (Ironically, Walker’s father was a professor at Stanford and chair of the committee that approved the industrial park. He worked closely with Terman to push the idea through the university administration.)

These are images of the built environment with a nod to Atget and Evans, but they contain none of the humanity and social function or humanist documentary of Evans’ depression-era urban landscapes. They contained none of the mystery and aura of Atget’s haunting, mysterious Paris views. The tourist and the institution, perhaps, tell a more cutting story about the Valley than Evans-style portraits of workers could have. In a way, the images serve as a negative for the kind of American social documentary photography tradition of which Evans is a part. It is in the invisible that these images reveal what is unanimously and ubiquitously left out of the arch-industrial narratives of the Valley. The naiveté of the tourist’s eye, the institution’s orchestration of the project, and the brilliance of the photographer’s craft have created an alternate story of this place. The invisible of the military industrial complex combine with the invisible of the directives of race, class, and gender, producing the hard-to-define region called the Silicon Valley. Basilico’s photographs tell a story of race and capital formation in this landscape. It’s what is not there that tells a truth about this place.

–Aaron Wilcher

Some examples of Eugene Atget’s work

Walker Evans photos from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Evans Farm Security Administration (FSA), Depression-era street scenes in New York.

A few of Basilico’s 1991 Beirut photographs.

Basilico at MIT.

Basilico’s SF MOMA show “From San Francisco to Silicon Valley.”


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EXHIBIT: The Chinese of California : A Struggle for Community (through Aug. 30)

This posting comes from the California Historical Society site.

The Bancroft Library, California Historical Society and Chinese Historical Society Present

The Chinese of California: A Struggle for Community
February 7 to August 30, 2008

From the gold country of Northern California to major metropolitan areas of Southern California and beyond, Chinese of California tells the story of the Chinese American fight for civil rights and the unique challenges that characterized the formation of Chinese communities in California.

As the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and further legislation removed the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law for people of Chinese descent, discrimination and violent attacks intensified. Since the Gold Rush to the building of the transcontinental railroad to the modern civil rights struggle, Chinese Californians have faced the challenge of organizing to fight for basic human rights—and for the very existence of their communities.

A joint project of the Bancroft Library, the California Historical Society, and the Chinese Historical Society of America, Chinese of California explores these stories, sharing from within the experiences of the Chinese communities’ struggles to survive.


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Anthology of Reviews: Blood or Oil? Paul Thomas Anderson and Upton Sinclair

In a March truthout editorial, writer David Bacon attacked Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil!. In There Will Be Blood, Bacon writes, Anderson evacuated the film of radicalism and the labor movement in early Southern California surrounding the big capital of the booming oil industry.

Anthony Arthur, author of the 2006 biography, Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, commented in the Times on the absence of the young radical character, Paul, in the movie version. He suggests that both the quest for oil riches and the business of saving souls offer less social commentary in Anderson’s adaptation, which he regards as “misanthropic” in the depiction of Daniel Day Lewis’s character, Daniel Plainview. Nowhere, as in the novel, suggests Aurthur, appears the historical backdrop of Bolshevism, WW I, the Red Scare, Teapot Dome, and the evangelical movement in Southern California epitomized by Aimee Semple McPherson.

Spencer Dew, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote in The Dallas Morning News about Anderson and Sinclair’s take on the relationship between capital and religion: in the movie and the novel Plainview and Eli are salesmen. Between the lines the film may contain Sinclair’s social commentary, but Dew writes that the novelist’s vision of Eli puts more light on wealth’s corruption (or perversion) of the socialist project of Christian spirituality.

In The New Yorker David Denby gave an exuberant endorsement of the film and offered stylistic commentary on the differences between Oil! and There Will Be Blood. “[T]he young writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has now done work that bears comparison to the greatest achievements of Griffith and Ford,” writes Denby. Instead of giving Anderson demerits for his bleak vision of Plainview and Eli’s project, Denby gives him credit for re-visioning the novel by collapsing the mythic and the socio-historical. “‘Blood’ has the pulse of the future in its rhythms. Like the most elegiac Western, this movie is about the vanishing American frontier. The thrown-together buildings look scraggly and unkempt, the homesteaders are modest, stubborn, and reticent, but, in their undreamed-of future, Wal-Mart is on the way . . . . Anderson has set up a kind of allegory of American development in which two overwhelming forces—entrepreneurial capitalism and evangelism—both operate on the border of fraudulence; together, they will build Southern California . . . ” In August 2006 Denby wrote in the magazine a lengthy review of two biographies of Sinclair, one by Anthony Arthur and the other by Kevin Mattson.

In Religion Dispatches, S. Brent Plate, a professor of visual studies and religion at Texas Christian University, regards There Will Be Blood as a mythological origin story, and compares Plainview and Eli to Cain and Abel. He draws the title of his essay, “There Will Be a Nation,” from D.W. Griffith’s own origin story.

The Economist remarked on the American progressive tradition of railing against oil interests, using Sinclair and Anderson as vehicles for the discussion.

Though he admits to not having read Oil!, Slate’s Timothy Noah says that Anderson’s film should have taken a social cue from Sinclair’s didactic strategy, and adopted an overt critique.

A few sources for studying Upton Sinclair:

His book, The Profits of Religion: A Study of Supernaturalism as a Source of Income and a Shield of Privilege, can be found here.

The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco has some information and primary documents available on Sinclair.

The New York Times articles on Sinclair and Blood.


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NEWS: Arizona Bill Moves to State House, Threatens Ethnic Studies

Roberto Hernandez, a doctoral candidate in the department of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, started an email chain about the Arizona anti-ethnic studies legislation that ended up in CSA hands.

The following story reveals several Arizona legislators’ blatant attacks on ethnic studies at all levels of public education, including higher-ed. The legislators suggest that ethnic studies is an “attack on Western civilization.” The bill would ban “race-based” curriculum and would cut funding for “hate-speech paid for by tax dollars.”

Further, “SB1108 also would bar teaching practices that ‘overtly encourage dissent’ from those values, including democracy, capitalism, pluralism and religious tolerance,” writes Howard Fischer, reporter for Capitol Media Services.

Phoenix newspaper, The East Valley Tribune, had the story on April 16.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is also following the story.


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EVENT: May 6, CA State Poet Laureate Al Young at De Anza College

The California History Center Foundation invites you to a reception for California’s Poet Laureate

AL YOUNG

Tuesday, May 6, 2008
4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
California History Center
De Anza College
21250 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino

Come meet the poet, author, and screenwriter, and enjoy refreshments and good company at the California History Center! Winner of numerous awards for his work in a variety of literary formats, Young has also taught and lectured throughout the nation and the world. He was appointed Poet Laureate of California in 2005.

Al Young will be on campus for the De Anza College LitFest: A Multicultural Literary Arts Festival with funding provided by De Anza College Strategic Planning Community Collaborations Initiative and DASB. Funding for the reception provided by the California History Center Foundation. Additional sponsors include: APAX (Asian Pacific American eXpressions), Institute for Community and Civic Engagement, Language Arts Division, ¡LEAD! (Latina/o empowerment at De Anza), Writing and Reading Center, and Red Wheelbarrow (De Anza’s literary magazine).

Event is wheelchair accessible and open to the public. Parking available in the Flint Center parking structure for $2.00. To RSVP and for more information,
please call Tom Izu at (408) 864-8986


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BOOKS: 2-String Julliard Violin on Skid Row: Steve Lopez of the LA Times

NPR’s Fresh Air host Dave Davies interviewed LA Times columnist Steve Lopez today about his new book The Soloist. Lopez, known for his slice-of-LA-life column, happened on the subject of his book while out walking one of his beats, LA’s downtown skid row. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers was born in Cleveland and was trained at Julliard, but was diagnosed with schizophrenia only two years into his program, and ended up in downtown LA years later, where he lived on the street. Lopez encountered Ayers playing a two string violin, beginning a several year relationship that would see Lopez helping Ayers to off the street and into meetings with members of the LA Philharmonic. The book recounts their meetings, friendship, and Lopez’s take on skid row and the practice of journalism in LA. The book is being made into a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.

Two days ago in his column, Lopez commented on Ayers’s take on the book and the movie, and “the bargain they’ve struck.”