Sunday, April 23, 2017

Over the mountains

The ICI-hosted ISSRNC conference "Mountains and Sacred Geography" was, like every big conference, a doozy. Going in I was frustrated, as at every event with parallel sessions, that there were so many things you'd have to miss, no matter what you chose. On top of that, I was committed to attending half a dozen Sacred Himalaya Initiative-related events. But now that it's over, and having attended pretty much full time starting at 8:30 each of the last three mornings, I'm glad there wasn't more of it! I think I'll be adding ISSRNC to my world in the future, if its meetings aren't too far away.

As for sacred mountains... I think I'm ready for a rest. The final panel I attended this afternoon included a paper refreshingly not about mountains. Indeed, the presenter remarked, her subject of swamps and marshes was something like the antithesis of the supposed clarity and enlightenment associated with mountains. When she argued that the idea of the "slough of despond" (swamps were associated in ancient and medieval Europe with acedia, the slothful vice of those who cannot turn to God) illuminated the paralysis of many regarding climate change, I had an aha moment. Mountains are a temptation, even a danger to ecological thinking, because they're imagined as breaks from - escapes from - the slog of the ordinary flatlands. They seem like self-contained worlds, connected more to the sky (and also perhaps the underworld) than to their surrounds. Marshes were avoided (and drained) for being neither solid land nor flowing water, but we now know how ecologically crucial wetlands are precisely because of that fecund messiness. The clarity of mountain perspectives, especially if they encourage distaste for swampy messiness, might offer false comfort.

That said, it was still loads of fun to be talking to people about Kailash. In my own remarks I bracketed the question of the antiquity of the kora to our Western Himalayan mount, discussing instead the contemporary appeal of the idea of a mountain sacred to many world religions, and proposing ways of deepening and complicating it for the yatris of the future. (My main suggestion: don't go around once, go twice!) Kailas cropped up in lots of other places, too, always mythicized, like in this image from someone's powerpoint, where it has the inverted cone shape of Meru!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Temple mounts

A part of the New School's Orozco mural I'd never really spent much time thinking about came to life for me today. As part of the ISSRNC conference, Ines Talamanez - mother of the field of Native American Religious Studies in the US - and her students presented a fascinating panel called "We Now Speak for Ourselves: Religious Aesthetics for Creating Ceremonial Space, Chanting, Singing, and Dancing in Defense  of Our Sacred Landscapes." At the end, attention turned to the part of the mural with the Yucatan pyramid. Look, said Talamantez, that's us. She had a loop of hair just like that when she was growing up.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Kailas darsan

You could see Kailas from The New School today! As the hosts of the ISSRNC conference on Mountains and Sacred Landscapes, India China Institute got to devote a plenary session to our Kailash project, and so seven of us yatris shared some of our experiences and takeaways from last year's trek/pilgrimage
Also on our panel was the director of the ICIMOD Kailash Sacred Landscape initiative, who dazzled us with this (too) charming map of the area, and then with a visualization of the various components of the initiative in the form of a mandala. It was nice to reconnect with people, remember our times together and learn where their thinking has taken them since. The audience got a nice view of our project, too.

Thursday, April 20, 2017


One of the graduate students who led a discussion section for last semester's New School history course was part of a team of philosophy students who met with children recently at the Brookly Public Library. A writer for The New Yorker listened in:

Lemelin attempted to move the discussion forward conceptually. “Do you think I’m the same as I was when I was your age?” he asked. 
“You didn’t do phafosity—whatever it’s called—when you were younger,” a boy said. 
“When you were younger, you didn’t like mushrooms, and now you do,” someone offered. 
“Does liking mushrooms make me who I am?” Lemelin asked. “What makes me me?” 
“Look it up,” one boy replied.

You can find the article here. (Reminds me of that time when....)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Roundtable redux!

Postponed because of snow with a slight change of personnel, still an inspiring first airing of LREL's new exploration of the synergies between religious studies and journalism. Biery is a current student, who did sterling work in the course "Literary Journalism and Religion," taught by Korb, who directs our First Year Writing program, along with being a prolific author of books and articles, many on religion. Percy won the 2017 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing for her deeply affecting New York Times Magazine article on survivors of the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Seed plot

One doesn't often find a record of how a seminar - a real seminar, not a lecture passive-aggressively elicited through socratic questioning - works, but I've happened on one. Abraham Luchins, a fellow professor, attended the seminars of Max Wertheimer, pioneering Gestalt psychologist and leader among the first refugee scholars of the University in Exile, from 1936 until Wertheimer's death in 1943, and reconstructed them from his verbatim notes decades later. I have to take his word for the accuracy of his notes, but what impresses and inspires was that he wrote down everything, from student interjections to what happened in discussions after class officially ended. And he recorded what wasn't said, too. Perhaps it takes a psychologist to notice the classroom dynamics in this way. Here's how he reconstructed the start of Wertheimer's seminar on problem solving and thinking.
Wertheimer soon gets them going - all the participant contributions are transcribed, too - but loses a number again when he pivots from the theoretical discussion about theory and experiment to two puzzles. Here's the first one. (Don't read on until you've tried to solve it.)
Did you figure it out? I confess I didn't, though I imagined her pushing the surface with her already kneaded dough around the tent pole with her hips. Awkward! Nobody in 1936 hazarded a response, either:
Ha! Well, I'm following his urging by passing it on to you. What say you?
But other students were more amenable, wondering, for instance, how children vs. adults would fare in such a predicament, or how results might vary if the story involved a different material than flour. Now we're talking! "These students, incidentally," Luchins observes tartly, "had not been undergraduate major in psychology." (Perhaps flour was important; Luchins frames his own account of what went on with the etymology of seminar as "seed plot." But the Mullah?)

Abraham S. Luchins and Edith H. Luchins, Wertheimer's Seminars Revisited:
Problem Solving and Thinking, vol. 1 (Albany, NY: Faculty Student Association,
State University of New York at Albany, Inc., 1970), 1, 9, 18, 19, iii

Monday, April 17, 2017

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Friday, April 14, 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Coming conference

Starting a week from today!


The Sacred Mountains class found itself in this strange place today. It was a bit of a gamble but I think it paid off. The picture is of an old forest cemetery (the hillock at upper left) which is now perched on an island in an Appalachian landscape transformed by mountaintop removal (MTR) mining. (We started by watching this conflicted depiction of the monstrosity of MTR, and then this footage of a "Blesssing of the Mountain," one asserting the value of seeing things from above, the other demonstrating the power of being there on the ground.)
Our reading was from Andrew R. H. Thompson's Sacred Mountains: A Christian Ethical Approach to Mountaintop Removal (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) - our only text explicitly Christian or concerned with ethics - and it's not easy going for people unfamiliar with that field. Predictably and understandably my students were put off by Thompson's assumption that his readers were fellow members of "the church." Most also couldn't fathom his argument for a "theocentric ethics" (based in the ideas of H. Richard Niebuhr), and for how it could prevent the "absolutization" of relative values which bedevils discussions of problems such as MTR. They assumed "theocentric" must mean claiming God for one's own position, rather than the decentering humility of accepting and trusting a God of all whose values one did not claim to understand. It being Holy Week I quite enjoyed laying out the idea that human "imaginations" even of values like justice and inclusion inevitably have blind spots, the pursuit of one's value inevitably bringing "disvalue" to some other; the only alternative is to own one's fallibility (I didn't use the s-word), to repent the disvalues one wittingly and unwittingly does and countenances, ideally in the presence of all affected: church as the matrix for a different kind of sociality. (I didn't get into christology.)
But what about MTR? Thompson gives few concrete suggestions (or rather, he thinks action should arise out of actual engagement in a locality, not reading about it) but it was fun to think with him what "mountain reclamation for God" might look like. We've often argued that mountains should be left alone, or returned to a presumed pristineness, then bellyached over the what and the how, the who and the why. Thompson's argument allows one to think beyond the artificial islands of "sacred mountains," just as it offers a transcendent reframing of relative values. For a moment it seemed like the consequence of setting aside a few special places for preservation, conservation - as sacred heritage - was not qualitatively different from leveling most of the mountains around Kayford, West Virginia but keeping Stover's Cemetery.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Destructive destruction

Tom Toles, always spot-on. It's terrifying to see the chaos candidate turn his fervid attention to foreign relations, and discover - after weeks of frustration in domestic questions - that there are foreign policy buttons he can press with impunity. Pray for Korea. Pray for us all.