James and Braudel and the Berkeley Farmer’s Market

by zunguzungu

…even today, nothing is easier in Europe–I do not include the United States here–than to observe a municipal street market, or an old-fashioned shop, or a peddler who is quick to tell you of his travels, or a fair, or a bourse. Go to Brazil, to the back country of Bahia, or go to Kabylia or to sub-Saharan Africa, and you will find the oldest form of market still active under your very nose.”

(p.21, Fernand Braudel, Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism)

(Berkeley farmer’s market)

Braudel doesn’t, of course, include the United States. Why not? The United States is, of course, the place where “the oldest form of market” could never exist because–paging Louis Hartz–the US’s Americanness is practically defined by its being sui generic: everything that happens here happens because of here and now, not because of tradition, not like in Europe. We don’t have tradition in the United States, of course, we have modernity.

Braudel’s “United States,” is crossing streams with C.L.R. James’s sense of the US, which is that “The American Civilization is identified in the consciousness of the world with two phases of the development of world history. The first is the Declaration of Independence. The second is mass production. Washington and Henry Ford are the symbols of American civilization. And on the whole this instinctive judgement is correct” In this sense, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not distinguishable from mass production and industrial modernity, together forming some kind of entity he calls “American Civilization.”

I was snide and blithe in my angry denunciation of James for daring to be sort of critical of John Ford–my blood still seethes at the affront–but this sort of thing illustrates quite well why he would consider DeMille to be more American than John Ford: whereas Ford is obsessively concerned with American pasts, the different forms and conceptions of tradition within US cultures, people like Braudel and James gesture towards the US less as a place than as an ideal. Whereas John Ford’s America is always mediated and defined by the dialectic between modernity and tradition (a modernity defined by tradition and a tradition defined by modernity), the US seems to be functioning for these two erstwhile and brilliant Marxists* as a kind of transcendant spirit of modernity. “America” quite often seems to be like that, an idea that is not only detached from historical trajectories (of, say, Brazil, Quebec, or the United States, which are, as such, historical traditions with pasts) but kept categorically distinct: America is the future. Only to the extent that a place or a thing can be seen as representing the future can it be seen as American. Thus, while James might like The Informer (my fifteenth favorite John Ford movie), it can’t really be American, because it represents a pre-modern past, which America, of course, does not have.

The trick, though, is that these become tautologically defined categories. If America (the land of Washington and Henry Ford) is the land where the future happens first, then things which are not of that future are de-Americanized, like John Ford. Ford, then, one of the most important and influential director during the formative period of the Hollywood system, which James sees as a central pillar of “American Civilization,” gets extracted from a narrative which, by any reasonable standard, he should be seen as central to. And Braudel has to pretend that a Berkeley farmer’s market cannot exist, while a market in Europe or Africa can only exist as a remnant from the past, not, of course, because it’s an efficient method of delivering a certain niche of economic products in the here and now.

* also extremely strange Marxists; like Marx himself, their Marxisms are totally unique to their particular intellectual careers.