Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Dreams of flying the coop

If I've seemed a little logey the last weeks it's because we're trying to buy a co-op in Manhattan. Countercultural in itself - leaving Brooklyn for Manhattan?! - the whole process of applying for a mortgage has felt downright phantastical at a time when the president of the United States devotes his days to undermining anyone's confidence in any future. Doing all this while trying to teach about the Anthropocene and Zhuangzi would by itself produce cognitive dissonance aplenty every day of the week. But then there's the infamous "board package," a special kind of torture proudly maintained by the boards of New York City co-ops as flocks of lawyers, accountants, bankers, real estate agents and others fly in lazy circles overhead and scurry about underfoot. (Sorry, but this cringeworthy process demands mixed metaphors.) We've thought we were close to seeing the end of the tunnel many times only to be thrown for another loop by news of another arbitrary requirement nobody had the decency to tell us about before... It's enough to make one dream of joining the Daoists who flee society and all its conventions!


Monday, February 18, 2019

Above 265

New graffiti on the roof!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Imperial forgetfulness

Here's food for thought: a map of the United States in 1941 including all our colonial territories. Alaska and Hawai'i were yet to become states then, and the Philippines was still a territory as Guam, Puerto Rico and countless islands still are. "Slightly more than one in eight of the people of the US lived outside of the states," notes Daniel Immerwahr in the Guardian. The existence of the American empire has been hidden from the awareness of residents of the states by the "logo map" of the contiguous states and the (also culpably naive) story of its settlement.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Friday, February 15, 2019

Mission drift

The Zhuangzi course proceeds apace, which means we expansively limp and stagger along with the Course hoping eventually to float and drift within the ancestor of all things, which makes all things the things they are, but which no thing can make anything of (chs 18 and 20; Ziporyn 72 and 84). More easily done than said!

We've moved beyond the seven 内篇 "Inner Chapters" which are all most folks in these parts read - there's plenty of limping and staggering there! The remaining twenty-six chapters, of which we're reading the selections Brook Ziporyn includes in his Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, add complexity in part by being less complicated. Road signs, though pointing in different directions! Ziporyn suggests we approach them as efforts of earlier readers of the Inner Chapters to make sense of them. We're in a conversation - though we don't know with whom!

I framed the class with words from chapter 10:  

Everyone in the world knows how to raise questions about what they don't know, but none know how to raise questions about what they already know. (Ziporyn 66) 

I had the students give presentations on sections they were confident they understood. We soon lost our way.

To try to govern the world by doubling the number of sages would merely double the profits of the great robbers. If you create pounds and ounces to measure them with, they'll steal the pounds and ounces and rob with them as well. ... And if you create Humanity and Responsibility to regulate them with, why, they'll just steal the Humanity and Responsibility and rob with them as well. (ch 10, Ziporyn 64) 

When a drunken man falls from a cart, he may be hurt but he will not be killed.. ... Having been unaware that he was riding, he is now unaware that he is falling. (ch 19, Ziporyn 78)

Man's life between heaven and earth is like a white stallion galloping past a crack in a wall. (ch 22, Ziporyn 88)

Beginningless said, "Not knowing is profound; knowing is shallow. not knowing is internal; knowing is external." 
At this, Great Clarity was provoked to let out a sigh. "Not knowing is knowing! Knowing is not knowing! Who knows the knowing of nonknowing?"...
Beginningless said: ... "If someone answers when asked about the Course [Dao], he does not know the Course. Though one may ask about the Course, this does not mean one has heard of the Course." (ch 22, Ziporyn 90)

Image above from the TV version of Tsai Chih Chung, 莊子說

Thursday, February 14, 2019

What the New School looked like

Hanging out in the New School archives with my co-conspirator J, the university archivist and a grad student in psychology interested in writing about the history of psychology here, I learned about a recent archival find - this photo, of neo-Freudian Karen Horney. It's the late 30s or early 1940s (a historian of millinery would be able to tell us - what a display!) and Horney's teaching in the very room where J and I taught our first New School history course - although the walls and ceiling will then still have had Joseph Urban's color regime. What's so delightful here are the faces, each of which seems to tell a story. Why are some women smiling, others frowning? Why is one woman in short sleeves? What's going on with the intense young woman in the front row, or the pensive man at right (surrounded by scratches on the negative)? The woman in dark glasses in the back row, her companion hiding behind a copy of the New School Bulletin, seem to come from more recent times. And whence comes the circle right above Horney's head?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Earth satyagraha

Something very special happened in "Religion and the Anthropocene" today. It went like a tremor through the room - everyone felt it.

The week's been dedicated to the Bhagavad Gita and to Gandhi's thoughts about, and building from it, in Hind Swaraj. I'd forgotten to post the Hind Swaraj text on our online platform (and no student had alerted me to its absence) so it fell to me to tell them about this remarkable work from 1909, clear articulation of Gandhi's critique of "modern civilization" and of the love/soul/truth-force (satyagraha) that True Home Rule for India would mean. It's written as a dialogue with someone who wants to kick the English out. Gandhi tries to convince him that the problem isn't (just) the English but the English way of understanding human life, economy, politics, spirituality. Thinking like their colonial oppressors, the Indian nationalists "want the tiger's nature, but not the tiger" (12). In particular, trying to fight the English with the same "brute-force" they use is doomed to failure. The interlocutor isn't easily persuaded, and offers a powerful analogy. If an armed thief comes into your house, ought you not to drive him out?

I read the class Gandhi's response, which begins by imagining how arming yourself and your neighbors against the thief would lead to a widening escalation of arms - and would probably end in disgrace. But there's an alternative.

"You set this armed robber down as an ignorant brother; you intend to reason with him at a suitable opportunity: you argue that he is, after all, a fellow man; you do not know what prompted him to steal. You, therefore, decide that, when you can, you will destroy the man's motive for stealing. Whilst you are thus reasoning with yourself, the man comes again to steal. Instead of being angry with him, you take pity on him. You think that this stealing habit must be a disease with him. Henceforth, you, therefore, keep your doors and windows open, you change your sleeping-place, and you keep your things in a manner most accessible to him. The robber comes again and is confused as all this is new to him; nevertheless, he takes away your things. But his mind is agitated. He enquires about you in the village, he comes to learn about your broad and loving heart, he repents, he begs your parson, returns you your things and leaves off the stealing habit. He becomes your servant, and you find for him honourable employment." (44)

Stunned silence, as you may imagine, leading to an uneasy discussion. Is this serious? Is it practical? Could it ever work? And yet is there any true alternative? We traced ways in which this commitment to satyagraha (religion, morality, India, interchangeable in Gandhi's argument) is anchored in the Gita's decoupling of action from concern with fruits of action, its sense that all are connected in Krishna, that there are no enemies, that the true force at work in the cosmos is love. But still, we're in a class about climate calamity. The world we know is dead or dying, dragging much of the rest of life with us. Love?

I'd put up this image of Gandhi from the New School's Orozco murals, and talked a little about how hard it is to recapture the sense of utopian hope it represented in 1931, when the toppling of the British Raj was inconceivable to most. (Hope and need?) What place is there today for a fairy story like that of the robber let alone for its utopian feel, its imagining a genuine alternative to the failed dream of western modernity? As Amitav Ghosh and Prasenjit Duara lament, Indian and Chinese religious figures early saw through the false promises of western models of national strength and prosperity but these lands' current governments want the tiger's nature. India isn't Gandhian anymore! A rousing manifesto for "climate satyagraha" written at a PanAfrican conference on nonviolence (the brief second reading the students had prepared) added to the utopian feel, and the feel of estrangement. Is love-force, soul-force, truth-force really more than a fantasy? Can we even feel it, numbed as we are? Then this happened:

Actually, said one student, the earth, doesn't the earth treat us just the way Gandhi says we should treat the robber, setting everything out for us to take?

The Penguin Gandhi Reader, ed. Rudrangshu Mukherjee (Penguin, 1993)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Far side

Just a little past the fiftieth anniversary of the famous blue marble photo of the earth from the surface of the moon, here's an image (actually a composite) of the long unseen dark side of the moon with the blue marble in the background, courtesy of a Chinese satellite.


It could get a little tedious to announce the 100th anniversary of each of the New School's first seven classes, but I have to mention this one, which met for the first time today in 1919. It has the distinction of being our first course taught by a woman - and quite a redoubtable one at that. Emily James Putnam (whom you've known about for years!) was a veritable co-foundress of the school, and the person responsible for the most iconoclastic elements of the early New School's structure.
But this is also the first time the word "religion" comes up in a course description - as a subject for analysis and critique, of course!

Monday, February 11, 2019

Pure fragrance of earth

I tried teaching about the Bhagavad Gita today, a first. Many of my colleagues in small religious studies programs have to engage it in world religion survey courses all the time, but since we abjure such surveys, I've been spared the chance. The reason for breaking my Gita fast now is almost laughably arbitrary. Roy Scranton, whose Learning to Die in the Anthropocene we read the first week, quotes from the Gita in what purports to be a post-religious text. I also thought it would be interesting to ease our way into "religion" not through comfortably spineless Buddhism or notoriosly eco-toxic Christianity. I was also angling for a way to bring in Gandhi's critique of western culture, and he was deeply grounded in the Gita. Makes a kind of sense, I guess, and there's a reason so many non-Hindus have been impressed and inspired by it. But I couldn't have predicted that one of my students would be a child of ISKCON, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. Karma! In any case, how can one not swoon at words like these...

'There is nothing superior 
to me, O Conqueror of Wealth; 
the universe is strung on me 
as pearls are strung upon a thread. 

'I am the water's taste, Arjuna, 
I am the light of sun and moon, 
the Vedas' sacred syllable, 
sound in the air, manhood in men. 

'I am the pure fragrance of earth 
and the radiance of fire; 
I am the life in all beings, 
the ascetics' asceticism. 

'Know me, O Son of Pritha, as 
the eternal seed in all beings, 
the mind of the intelligent, 
the splendor of the radiant! 

'I am the might of the mighty, 
freed from passion and desire, 
I am desire unopposed 
to law, O Bull of Bharatas.'
(7.7-11; Norton Critical Edition,
trans. Gavin Flood [2014], 39)

How the Gita will connect to our Anthropocene discussions remains to be seen. The gentle Krishna above (pic from here) differs from the deterministic part of the Gita Scranton likes (where everyone is already effectively dead, a riff on 11.33). Nor is it quite like - though of course, all of them meet in Krishna - the terrifying part which has become part of the story of the Anthropocene through J. Robert Oppenheimer, who quoted the Gita (melding 10.34, 11.12 and 11.32) when he witnessed the first atomic bomb test in 1945.

"If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One... 
I am become Death,
The shatterer of worlds."

And all these are different from the sustenance Gandhi finds for ahimsa in the Gita, which we'll be reading about on Wednesday... Stay tuned!