Saturday, August 27, 2016

Friday, August 26, 2016

Cold war cartography

One of these is, perhaps, Mount Kailash! They are part of the Unisphere, the lasting monument of the 1964 New York World's Fair held in Corona Park, Queens - a place I confess it's taken me this long to finally go see.
But speaking of seeing, you know what you can't see? China. In fact the globe seems so positioned than the then communist world all but disappears - except as a blotchy negative across the open Pacific...

Historical panorama

The real objective of the Corona Park visit was the Panorama of the City of New York, now in the Queens Museum. I've wanted to see the world's fair panorama since reading a romantic scene which took place here in Michael Chabon's 2001 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.It didn't occur to me that the Panorama wouldn't have changed much since that book was written - 6000 of its 900,000 structures were updated in 1992-94, but further updates have been ad hoc and few. The areas where I spend most of my time haven't changed too much, though.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

New blurb for theorizing

I've carried a course introducing the discipline of religious studies with me since I first started professoring. Once called "Approaches to the Study of Religion" and a lecture, it became a seminar and was renamed "Theorizing Religion" by a short-lived colleague here, and that name has stuck. The upcoming academic year will mark my tenth time teaching it at Lang. Perhaps by next year it will get a new name, "Religion Making."

Revisiting the syllabus each year has become a ritual, a chance to take stock of my changing understanding of my discipline, as well as of the context in which I'm teaching it. Assignments have changed as well as readings, which encircle a relatively stable core of "classic texts" in newer debates and perspectives. (I agonize about the core each time. Canons exist only because professors say so. Is it really appropriate to subject students to the old roster of dead white men? And yet, after two decades in the field, I have - not without chagrin - to acknowledge that few of the more contemporary readings I've assigned over the years are still being used. This isn't because they're out of date, but because they are part of growing and changing discussions... Still, in these growing changing discussions, those old classics - which are out of date! - keep coming up! We're constituted as a field - and able, to the extent that we are, to talk across generations - through our formative engagements with these classics. I can't do the counter-canon thing. I teach critical awareness and creative engagement through wrestling with compromised legacies.

And yet I've been moving toward what I'm now calling "religion making" as a focus for some time. The foundation, I suppose, lies in the seminar itself - an educational set-up where knowledge is put together by the a particular group of people in discussion, rather than handed down by a lecturer (or texts) representing a field, a discipline. The particularity of the particular group matters, too. When I first arrived, Lang had no majors, and religious studies still isn't a major. I'm still grateful for the students who concentrated in religious studies, but most students, even in this class, aren't. The course has to be useful for psychologists and historians and students in culture and media, too. And writers and artists - for Lang has many students hoping to establish themselves as artists. How can I be of service to them - and they to the class? Seminars work because the participants are not just empty vessels, waiting to be filled by professorial instruction, but come with perspectives, questions, insights, identities of their own - what I've in the last year learned to call "prior knowledge."

And of course many of the students, whether they're taking few or many courses in religious studies, aren't taking it to learn about religious studies. They're curious about religion - something carefully or carelessly omitted from their previous education. Religion has become one of the things Americans encounter in college. Some come because they are fascinated or disturbed by religious fanatics, others are on a spiritual quest of their own. None are, let's face it, interested in the discipline of religious studies (let alone its endless self-critique). But perhaps I can show them how to be - and why to be interested, even if academia isn't their thing.

So here's where I've ended up in the Fall 2016 edition. (I'm happy to show you the readings and assignments, too.) Religious studies shares the stage with "religion-making," a broader category which includes religion as presented by media and framed by law, engaged by politics and sublimed by art - and which welcomes students' prior knowledge. Each is offered as necessary but not sufficient. The academic approach may be new to them, and I hope to demonstrate its value to them, but they are already working with categories and practices of "religion" as they walk in the door. Learning to theorize together in a seminar setting should make them more reflective, responsible "religion makers," both in school and out. (I don't print out the syllabi until Monday, so if you notice typos etc, let me know!)

Recent calls for better policing of the borders of the field ring hollow 
to my mind. What is fascinating about religion are the borderlands. 
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, “Teaching Religion” 

The category of religion has been described as "the most ideological of Western creations." (Dubuisson 2003: 147) It is a modern western concept, born perhaps in 1799, yet most of what it is thought to refer to is non-modern or non-western. At the same time, it seems an inescapable part of articulating what it means to be human here and now. What does it reveal and obscure? Can it be thought about in non-mystifying ways? 

This course weaves together a critical history of the academic discipline of religious studies with explorations of everyday “religion-making” in the media and our own lives. We read classic and contemporary theories of the nature, history and value of religion to develop a reflective understanding of the concept as well as of the phenomena which are made to bear its name. Unexamined views of what religion is (and isn’t) blind us to the true challenges of those practices, beliefs and traditions regarded as religious – as well as those not so regarded. 
Many other categories constitutive of western modernity interlock with the concept of religion. Understanding the travails of religious studies also offers insight into other, similarly fraught disciplines, as indeed into the nature of disciplinary projects as a whole. A critical awareness of the concept of religion and its study offers incisive perspectives on politics, gender, ethics and identity. 

But what has recently been called “religion-making” isn’t just something scholars do. We experience religion as a natural kind because it is woven into our individual, social and even political experience. Religions are made and unmade by participants as well as by critics, by high and pop culture, by individuals and communities negotiating complicated identities, by those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” - and by the law. 

The academic study of religion is not an escape from these wider practices of making and unmaking “religion” and “religions” but a privileged place for reflection, critique, intervention and dialogue in the broader theoretical and practical challenges of our time.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Back to work!

Instant expertise

The reality of the imminent start of the academic year made itself felt today. Not one, not two, not three but four presentations/ meetings! Amusingly, all had to do with New School history!

This isn't quite as strange as it might seem. This is Orientation week for all sorts of people, so it made sense that I was invited to meet the Lang First Year Fellows, and that my New School history chum J and I were invited to reprise our Faculty Development Day talk for new staff. And since the new semester includes a return to J's and my course on New School history, it's unsurprising we'd have had a get-together to finalize our syllabus and discuss it with the two brilliant graduate students who will be leading the course discussion sections.

Still, this was zero to sixty in just seconds. New School history has not been something I've been thinking about this summer. Indeed, I wasn't even really thinking about it yesterday. Would I have enough at my fingertips? Oh, yes. Assembling it into a coherent story was harder... but then the point was always that assembling too coherent a story traduces a history which is, in fact, more empowering when recognized as scrappy. J and I finished our reprise with the importance of being attentive to the particular demands of the messy moment - a commitment of our long-ago founders as well as our efforts to be true to our own time. It worked well enough.

And I'm excited about going back to school - this school - too!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Some more Kailashes (both uncredited, from here and here).

Monday, August 22, 2016

Western barbarians

The Silk Roads is slowing down in its second half, like a high-speed train approaching its destination. Chapter 16 has brought us to the First World War (the result, Frankopan suggests, of Britain's anxiety over a rising Russia's threats to India), but there are another 8 chapter to go! I'm not sure I'll make it to the end...

Not that the book isn't still full of unknown vistas, brilliant aperçus and delectable foreground-background inversions. But I'm starting to weary a little of the foregrounding of trade, especially in luxury goods from silk to spices to horses. Doubtless very important, and a useful corrective to stories based on ideas, or on shifty concepts like national character, cultural identity, "great men" or power. But do luxury goods, their consumers and their purveyors, matter so very much more than ordinary consumers of necessities - or, for that matter, the faceless masses who spin the silk, harvest the spices, raise the horses, who are mentioned in The Silk Roads only when they die in a plague or a massacre? And are ideas so very secondary? David Frankopan seems to delight in mentioning things intellectual, cultural or religious only in passing, mystifying superstructure at best!

I suspect one of Frankopan's motives here is his larger project of contesting Eurocentric histories. Not only is the Greece to Rome to Renaissance to modern empires and democracy story bunkum, but recent experience of western ascendancy leads us, smugly and mistakenly, to think ourselves the rightful darlings of history and heirs of the human future. In fact Europe was of little to no significance for much of history, and became important only because of its unusual penchant for violence (entering the trade story through human trafficking). Europe is more aggressive, more unstable and less peace-minded than other parts of the world, Frankopan argues, and became important in recent centuries because its entrenched relationship with violence and militarism ... allowed it to place itself at the centre of the world after the great expeditions of the 1490s. (A characteristic aside, in the same discussion: Fighting, violence and bloodshed were glorified, as long as they could be considered just. That was one reason, perhaps, why religion became so important...) (250-51) We think ourselves uniquely civilized but it really just boils down to the fact that Europeans were world leaders in building fortresses and in storming them. (252)

Am I objecting to this because it's wrong, or because it's right? I told my Chinese friend about it and he looked at me like I'd just worked out that twice two makes four!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rounding up

My return to Kailash is over and done with, but my research project around it is only getting started! I'd initially thought to try to find out how encounters with pilgrims/travelers from different traditions shaped people's views of the sacredness of the mountain, but I have no language in common with most of these travelers, and am too shy to chat people up anyway. Instead, I undertook to study some of the videos travelers make of their trip, at least some of which are in languages I know. I started today with some videos which turned out to have been edited by touring companies for specific groups - all aimed at Hindu pilgrims (the vast majority of non-Tibetans). It was fun to revisit the route we traversed three years ago, and to see places now familiar in different
seasons. I also saw things I didn't get to see, since they're part of what's called the "inner kora," closed to anyone who hasn't done the "outer" circumambulation thirteen times. But that's for ordinary Buddhists and Hindus! A turbo-charged Hindu group in 2012 (most from California) did the inner kora before even embarking on the outer. Indeed, the narration explained in a clever inversion, one turn around Nandi (part of the "inner kora") counts as thirteen of the outer! These lucky yatris also got to visit the cave in Kailash's south face where, Nepali astrologers (sic!) say, seven Vedic rishis meditated: below you see all of them, happily subordinate to Lord Shiva, master of the mount. Inner and outer, multiplicity and supremacy, and stories galore: much to explore!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Friday, August 19, 2016

Brooklyn delights

New York has its pleasures too - what a nice thing when friends from out of town show them to you! Some Japanese friends were here for the past few days, and on their Brooklyn day we took in not just the Captain America statue by the Prospect Park Carousel but Brooklyn Bridge Park. They'd bought tickets for BargeMusic, something I've heard of but never attended: enchanting as the St. Petersburg Piano Quartet played Vivaldi and Brahms in a resonant converted coffee barge, bobbing as boats passed on the East River...

Thursday, August 18, 2016


It's been exactly a month since I last shaved. I thought of this as part of being a yatri - a discipline as well as a marker of time. (I did the same last time, too.)

On returning to steamy summer Prospect Heights, however, overflowing with nerdy guys parading their nineteenth century beards in pastel shorts, I realized it reads completely differently here. It's off!