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Friday, September 13, 2013

The Zeitgeist of Déjà Vu

The German as well as the French language have imbued the English language with some unmistakably descriptive nomenclature. Philologists will concede that some words in certain languages encompass more information than the sum of their parts. The second word in the title of the article, Déjà Vu, is no stranger to native English speakers. Although the components together mean simply, already seen, the implications on a particular topic or situation can be exponential. The same is true for the German word zeitgeist. Disentangled it translates as time spirit. However, the vernacular usage in the English language has evolved to convey a collective episodical psychosocial belief. In more prosaic terms it is used to explain historical prevalences of visceral thoughts and paradigms.

What are the components of a zeitgeist? How do various mechanisms influence it's formation? Of course, these questions are the bedrock of the social sciences: psychology, sociology, anthropology and combinations thereof fused with historiography. This recombination of social sciences, like social history or cultural history, lends more currency to straight forward political histories. For those who shy away from historical writings might associate their ill taste for history because of the way in which history is taught: political history (name, place and date) as the touchstone.

According to French Historian, Fernand Braudel, there are 3 basic tenets by which history is shaped. He is often seen as the forerunner of modern cultural studies in the realm of historiography. Braudel merged the anthropological and sociological paradigms of the French Annales School into a second generation of historical theories.

In his academically most significant book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Braudel detailed his theory of what motivates history. He outlined the rise to power and affluence of Mediterranean Empires. The first principle is that of geography and the environment. It is this epoch which requires the most amount of time to bring about its sway on a people. The environment is slow and methodic where change is almost indiscernible. The second epoch entails prolonged social, economic, psychological and cultural history. These are the long term social movements and transitions of economies and can last from a single decade to a half a century. Lastly, the final period is that of particular events or histoire événementielle. What characterizes this period of short duration are individuals and sudden events. Presidents, religious leaders, despots, military leaders, crackpots are all part of the fabric which make up this last epoch.

All of these epochs are cyclical. Even if the time frame of change is thousands of years the tides still ebb and flow; lands are formed and destroyed. What Braudel hints at, but doesn't delve into with any conviction, is the interplay between the three in a retrospective manner. For instance, how does an event change or steer a social movement or economical paradigm? In other words, how does the interplay of the three epochs manipulate the zeitgeist?

The world stood still as it remembered 9/11. There have been many “events” which have elicited remembrances from Americans throughout modern history. It appears now as if some Americans want a mandated public remembrance of Benghazi. Here follows a few “remember” themes which certainly redirected and reshaped the American Zeitgeist.

Remember the Alamo 

Mexican dictator/General Antonio López de Santa Anna was attempting to squash a rebellion of Texans who were attempting to form a new nation. American President Andrew Jackson was a keen adherent of American expansionism as typified by his forays into Florida during the Seminole Indian Wars. An almost mythologic cottage industry of “remember the Alamo” emerged which ensured that a Zeitgeist was established. This zeitgeist thwart anyone infringing on American western expansion.

Remember the Maine

Fueled by the need for salt water colonies because contiguous North America was already divvied up; America set forth on acquiring the low hanging fruits of Spain's former colonies. “Yellow journalism” papers like the Hearst print empire and the Pulitzer newspapers, jarred the American Zeitgeist to prepare for war on an encroaching feeble Spanish Empire in the Western Hemisphere. An out of date and in need of decommissioning US battleship was sent to Havana harbor in Cuba. On the evening of 15 February 1898 the ship “unexpectedly” exploded while anchored in the harbor. The yellow journalism press and the US government were quick to lay blame to the Spanish which launched a series of land grabs from Spanish control: Guam, Cuba, Philippines and Puerto Rico.

Remember the Lusitania

The Lusitania was a British ocean cruiser which was torpedoed on 7 May 1915 by German U-boats. The British were keen on stirring the American people to declare war on Germany and subsequently continued with a propaganda campaign until 1917. Remembering the Lusitania came to a head in 1917. That year the Zimmerman Telegram, stating Germany's reinstatement of unrestricted U-boat activity, was the straw that broke the camel's back and pushed the Zeitgeist of the American's to declare war on Germany.

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