California: State of Light

Calavitta, John Paul. California: State of Light. 2015. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

From the dominance of a benign and benevolent climate a specific California metaphysics emerged that I call California immateriality. Drawing on current discussions in material culture studies, I use the term “immaterial” to refer to the world of things that are physically imperceptible, as that which needs to undergo processes of transformation and time in order to be perceived, such as: surf and sand dunes, earth quake lights and after-shocks, desert varnish and mid century architecture, traffic and speed, mountain clouds and weather, fossilization and ancient tree rings, metaphoric and historic gold, light and movies, and (cultural) erosion, thus shifting the focus from the dominant mode in material culture studies, from the tangible to processes of oscillation and weightlessness. Changing the focus from matter to energy does not suggest that materiality is unimportant. Rather, the object becomes less important than the idea, the yearning for material transcendence. The actual object, and whether it exists or not is trivial, as materiality is less an unchanging and stable form, and more a process of becoming and dynamism (immateriality is not to be taken literally, but lightly).

This dissertation traces the rise of the immaterial in California from the Gold Rush to today, looking at California through a glass brightly. In California, potentiality and promise are the immaterial conditions of life. Geographic metaphors are my focal points—places that express liminal boundaries between hard reality and dreams. Places that materialize the immaterial, and immaterialize the material. The main focus is Southern California, where Hollywood projected the California as the American dream to the rest of the nation, casting California itself as a star—as a place of perpetual fresh starts and the best weather in the world. Given the cinematic nature of the state of light, this narrative is framed as a screenplay, with voice-overs, speech bubbles, stage directions, and the like. Chapters are divided along recent fault lines, of recent calls to split the state into more or less 5 manageable states: BAY, SIERRA, CENTRAL CALIFORNIA, WEST CALIFORNIA, SOUTH CALIFORNIA.

In terms of methodology, this work hovers between literary criticism and personal narrative, fiction and creative non-fiction, constructing knowledge by engaging source materials directly and indirectly: California is/as a source. Stylistically and formally, this dissertation re-imagines the disciplinary spaces where the academy and academic rules of discourse can be transgressed and transformed—where objective, western traditional scholarship in its current form is challenged to include the mutual and interdependent significance of story and science, history and observation, theory and change. This work employs an eco-critical theory of narrative interaction, placing texts and their criticism at work in context—showing the parts they play in a changing and interconnected world. Thinking of narrative as a form of interaction acknowledges that narrative is shaped by and within unique environments and contexts. As such, I locate myself as critical observer/actor, employing narrative to make connections between experience, perception, and critique, thereby drawing attention to the social, political and environmental impacts of narrative/narration and human action.

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