Friday, October 31, 2008


It's that time of year again! (Actually, it's a few weeks earlier than in years past, because of the trial separation of AAR and SBL.) In Chicago!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

75 years

The University in Exile is 75 years old this year. In 1933, the 14-year-old New School for Social Research set the University in Exile up to provide refuge for intellectuals threatened by the rise of fascism in Europe; over the next years, 180 scholars from Germany, Austria, France and other countries, along with their families, were saved. Their contribution to American intellectual life was immense.
To commemorate the anniversary, the university invited Ira Katznelson, once himself the dean of the Graduate Faculty (descendant of the University in Exile), to give a lecture. Katznelson is a historian, and took the occasion to complicate the standard history of the school. The expansion of the very American progressive experiment which was the New School for Social Research to include this world of European emigré social scientists wasn't without its tensions. This is obvious when you think about it, but I gather not very many people think about it. (I do, occasionally, though usually in terms of incompatible cultures and philosophies of education. I hadn't considered the clash of personalities.)

In particular, those Katznelson called the 1919 generation were progressive American intellectuals convinced that free inquiry could lead to much-needed reforms to liberal democracy, while the 1933 generation (in the photo), burned by the collapse of Weimar democracy into totalitarianism, had a quite different orientation, more concerned to protect fragile democracy from its enemies than expose its failures. To the 1919 generation (to generalize), the 1933 generation seemed cynical about the world and human nature, but uncritical about America; to the 1933 generation, the 1919 generation seemed naive, provincial and too quick to criticize a democratic culture that needed defending. Many of the 1919ers were isolationist; many of the 1933ers felt that war against fascism was necessary. Some of the 1919ers were sympathetic to communism; most of the 1933ers saw Soviet Communism as another totalitarianism.

Katznelson's conclusion: It all added up to a more complicated, and so more provocative, intellectual environment - especially as there is continuing value to the commitments and concerns of each side. Perhaps we don't just have a unique legacy in this, but a tradition worth continuing. But how do you consciously continue a tradition of tension originally based in vastly different life experiences?

Tell about it, I suppose!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Purple mountain majesties

In class today, had occasion to show students the too-rarely-seen map of the actual results of the presidential election of 2004. Behold - the one above tells more than the one below, which tells way more than the one at bottom. But the third on is the only one most of us ever saw. (Hey - someone forgot Hawai'i and Alaska!)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Playing Osiander

Well, tonight was the play reading for which I played (well, read) the main part: David Morgan and Geoffrey Paul Gordon's "The Osiander Preface." (You remember Andreas Osiander, I'm sure.) Not sure if I was half as good as I hope I was, but I think I wasn't as bad as I fear. I was definitely acting, bellowing and sneering as I never do in real life, as well as drinking myself into unconsciouness, talking to God and making lewd overtures at women. Quite a trip! (Good thing it wasn't a staged reading.)

Besides adding to my credentials as a wannabe thespian, I also had an agenda with regard to this particular play. It's the work of one of my colleagues (David), who teaches physics and the history and philosophy of science, and focuses on what historians of science see as a shameful episode in that history - shameful for religion. For when Nicholas Copernicus completed the manuscript for his masterpiece De Revolutionibus Orbium, he let a Lutheran theologian named Andreas Osiander look it over. Unbeknownst to Copernicus, Osiander added a preface which said, among other things,

it is the duty of an astronomer to compose the history of the celestial motions through careful and expert study. Then he must conceive and devise the causes of these motions or hypotheses about them. Since he cannot in any way attain to the true causes, he will adopt whatever suppositions enable the motions to be computed correctly ... For these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable. ... they are not put forward to convince anyone that they are true, but merely to provide a reliable basis for computation. However, since different hypotheses are sometimes offered for one and the same ... the astronomer will take as his first choice that hypothesis which is the easiest to grasp. The philosopher will perhaps rather seek the semblance of the truth. But neither of them will understand or state anything certain, unless it has been divinely revealed to him.

Therefore alongside the ancient hypotheses, which are no more probable, let us permit these new hypotheses also to become known, especially since they are admirable as well as simple and bring with them a huge treasure of very skillful observations. So far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything certain from astronomy, which cannot furnish it, lest he accept as the truth ideas conceived for another purpose, and depart from this study a greater fool than when he entered it. Farewell.

It wasn't until Kepler's time that the authorship of the preface was established. The play imagines that Copernicus' book was not taken seriously because readers assumed the unsigned preface to be his own work, and seeks to understand why Osiander - who was an able mathematician as well as a cleric - will have done so underhanded a thing. It opens with Copernicus seeing the preface, cursing, and dying in a fit of rage!

My knowledge of early modern history makes me skeptical of the premise. Nobody believed that prefaces were meant in earnest. Prefaces at this time were designed to flatter patrons and reassure censors; if anything, they tended to overstate the importance of the work so generously supported by the patron. So a preface like this one would have whetted the appetite of a 16th century scholar, not dampened it. Books of calculations and hypotheses aspiring only to amusing diversions wouldn't come with such a preface! So I'm inclined to think that Osiander's reason (if indeed it was done without Copernicus' knowledge) was to ensure the book got published and noticed, but without its author and publisher getting in trouble. He may have been its best friend, not its traducer. (I gather there are others who think so too.)

Happily, the play is better than its premise. So while in outline it's about religion trying to hold back the progress of science (the old Enlightenment story...), the drama of it is all in Osiander, who is presented as torn between a serious interest in science, and a serious commitment to the goals of the Reformation: he wants not to prevent the book's publication, but to prevent its arguments from distracting from or undermining the religious revolution of Martin Luther. The play's neatest conceit (but hard to play!) is to depict Osiander's inner wranglings on this issue as dream dialogues with the aging Galileo, 100 years later: on one level Osiander knows Copernicus is right. He ends up deciding that the preface is God's work, that the world isn't ready for the possibility that human observations might provide a more accurate account of the world than Scripture, let alone that the earth moves (Galileo issues). But he does this as a believer in God and science.

The play was read last year as well, and the actor reading Osiander (a Jesuit priest!), made him a nasty piece of work. My agenda in securing the role this time around (I can admit it now) was to defend Osiander, to prevent the play from confirming simplistic religion-vs.-science views. Not so easy, since I couldn't change the script (though, as I've said, it presents a complex portrait of Osiander). It only goes so far to have the director of the religious studies program lending Osiander a voice, and is not without risk. If only I could have added ... a preface!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Family chemistry

So there I was thinking I was doing something totally out of character taking chemistry... but it turns out my mother once wanted to be a chemist! She so enjoyed it in high school (where she'd done four years of it; German Gymnasium is serious business) that she considered majoring in it in college. Various intervening events deflected her from this path, however, so she wound up trying pharmacy, and then switching to languages. Were I not now exploring chemistry myself, I might never have known!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Lauda laude

Latest instalment in my recent religion-and-theater series (after this and this) was a performance of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" at the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights (part of the Bernstein 90th Birthday extravaganza planned by Carnegie Hall). The Baltimore Symphony under Marinn Alsop were joined by singers, professional and high school, to make a cast of 750 ... which made it almost extravagant enough to fit the location - once a Vaudeville theater in a style David Dunlap has called "Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco," and since 1969 the "Palace Cathedral" of prosperity preacher "Rev. Ike" (whose website informs us he dared to go where most theologians, Bible teachers, and preachers would not. As an evangelist, on TV, radio, and at mass meetings, he had the “nerve” to PREACH “Prosperity NOW!” — long before it became popular to do so.)

The temple-like theater turned theater-like temple now available for hire was just right for a piece which nobody knows how to classify. Broadway and liturgy, drama and ritual, Bernstein called it a "theater piece for singers, players and dancers." It mixes most of a Catholic mass (in Latin) with rock, folk, blues and protest music (it was commissioned in 1968 and premiered in 1971 for the Kennedy Center opening, so you feel the vibe of Woodstock and the yearning for an end to the Vietnam war). It calls for an orchestra with lots of percussion, a blues band, church organ, electric guitar, marching band, huge choir, children's choir, and more... and each of these gets its moment in the sun, playing the kind of music it loves.

"Mass" tells the story of a young priest (the Celebrant, wonderfully performed by Jubilant Sykes) who, to make a long story short, goes mad as his congregation becomes less and less interested or committed; in the end, he destroys the sacrament, upends the altar, tears off his vestments and dances. But that's not the very end, which is the return of the "Simple Song" which the celebrant sang the start, before putting on his vestments (which starts out sounding like some chromatic mystery but is just a downward scale from C to C, with pauses and one turn) -

Sing God a simple song
Lauda, Laude...
Make it up as you go along
Lauda, Laude...
Sing like you like to sing
God loves all simple things
For God is the simplest of all

- now sung by a choirboy and joined by the once restive congregation:

Sing God a secret song
Lauda, Laude ...

This performance was seamless, the transitions from highest of high culture music (tone rows, echoes of Stravinsky and Shostakovich) to lowest somehow never jarring. It's like a tragedy, except for the ending, which finds beauty and the restoration of community through the destruction of the officiant... which makes it, for all the imagined sacrilege near the end, kind of a passion play... Like the mass.

Somewhat to my surprise, the music has aged well, but it's very much a piece of its time in its view of religion. In 1971, the churches seemed to be fatally emptying; religion's only hope of survival was as a "secret song," outside established institutions, a protest against a God gone AWOL. But sitting in Rev. Ike's palace - remember that he bought the place in 1969! - one is reminded that religion got through that crisis, and is going strong strong strong. So strong, in fact, that the protest and the anguished doubt in Bernstein's "Mass" seems a fond memory, a reminder of possibilities of spiritual awareness now harder to see.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Have I mentioned ...

... that it's Fall?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Transhuman religion

In Theorizing Religion today I did something radically new. We'd just finished Freud's Future of an Illusion, our first secularization theory and our strongest plea for science over religion. It ends with the famous words, "No, our science is no illusion, but an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere." Students usually doubt that we can do without those things science can't offer - consolation, comfort, the assurance that our sacrifices are worth it - and so argue that, delusion or not, religion will survive because "people need it." So I decided to assign something crazily new, part of William Sims Bainbridge's Across the Secular Abyss (2007).

Bainbridge once argued (along with Rodney Stark) that religion, while false, will never disappear (though it keeps changing form), because human beings inevitably need supernatural "compensators" for the injustices and disappointments of life - especially the arbitrariness of death. But in this new book, Bainbridge recants: science and new technology now offer compensators enough. In particular, technology will soon offer immortality and drive religion out of business (which is why he imagines religious persecution of scientists in the near future). It's a trippy thesis, but an intriguing one. In any case, it brings the science/religion question up to date, up to a present where technology already extends lives, mitigates suffering, alters personalities, etc. I stumbled on this book of Bainbridge's while preparing for my talk on the future of the philosophy of religion last Spring, and decided it would add excitement - danger, even - to the Theorizing Religion class. I think I succeeded in this!

It also gave me an excuse to invite C, one of our senior religious studies majors, to address the class about the subject of his senior work, transhumanism. Transhumanism is a movement of scientists and body modifiers which Bainbridge mentions. C brought along

The Transhumanist Declaration

(1) Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
(2) Systematic research should be put into understanding these coming developments and their long-term consequences.
(3) Transhumanists think that by being generally open and embracing of new technology we have a better chance of turning it to our advantage than if we try to ban or prohibit it.
(4) Transhumanists advocate the moral right for those who so wish to use technology to extend their mental and physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their control over their own lives. We seek personal growth beyond our current biological limitations.
(5) In planning for the future, it is mandatory to take into account the prospect of dramatic progress in technological capabilities. It would be tragic if the potential benefits failed to materialize because of technophobia and unnecessary prohibitions. On the other hand, it would also be tragic if intelligent life went extinct because of some disaster or war involving advanced technologies.
(6) We need to create forums where people can rationally debate what needs to be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
(7) Transhumanism advocates the well- being of all sentience (whether in artificial intellects, humans, posthumans, or non- human animals) and encompasses many principles of modern humanism. Transhumanism does not support any particular party, politician or political platform.
The following persons contributed to the original crafting of this document: Doug Bailey, Anders Sandberg, Gustavo Alves, Max More, Holger Wagner, Natasha Vita More, Eugene Leitl, Berrie Staring, David Pearce, Bill Fantegrossi, Doug Baily Jr., den Otter, Ralf Fletcher, Kathryn Aegis, Tom Morrow, Alexander Chislenko, Lee Daniel Crocker, Darren Reynolds, Keith Elis, Thom Quinn, Mikhail Sverdlov, Arjen Kamphuis, Shane Spaulding, Nick Bostrom
The Declaration was modified and re-adopted by vote of Humanity Plus membership on March 4, 2002, and December 1, 2002.

It generated discussion, but most of it was either dismissive and defensive (human consciousness can't be extended, etc.), or strangely practical (what's possible now, how much does it cost?), so I came to its passionate defense. Echoing what I'd said on behalf of Freud on Monday ("Religion's false, everyone knows its false, the question is whether you are mature enough to you admit it or not") I said "The transformation of human nature by technology has begun already, everyone knows it, the question is whether you are mature enough to admit it or not." For Freud I was just playing a part, but for transhumanism it felt like I actually meant it.

Perhaps I do. Transhumanism poses deep and importand questions, and questions germane for religious studies as I understand it. My working defense of religious studies as the field which reminds us that there is no consensus on the real is being extended by my experience with the Secularism class to the claim that there is no consensus on the human: hello transhumanism! My religious ethics class (which I teach again in the Spring after a hiatus of too many years) starts with the claim that religious ethics goes beyond secular ethics in asking what the limits of the moral community are - not just human beings but the dead, ancestors, the unborn, animals, deities, lands, powers?

Transhumanism's exciting (and, yes, dangerous) for reminding us that the limits of the human aren't defined, and are getting less clear with every passing year. I'm looking forward to learning more about it as C writes his senior work on it - and while I'm at it, I should thank him for introducing me to it in the first place.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Economics & religion synchronicity

Had a delightful moment of collegiality and convergence today. In response to a dean's initiative, the Economics department offered a "teach-in" this morning on "The crisis of 2008," and I encouraged my first year students to go. Several did; when I asked them how it was as we gathered for Secularism right after, they said "We have no future" - but they weren't sure they'd understood everything that was said. I offered to go see if my friend L, an economist who's visited the class, might be free to come down and talk to them. Yes please! I raced upstairs to the Econ department, but she wasn't there. Bouncing back down the stairs, I nearly collided with Anwar Shaikh, a senior professor of Economics, just returned from the teach-in - and, on the spur of the moment, he agreed to come instead. So now my first years, who signed up for a course on secularism and wound up with a professor of religious studies, have met two members of the economics faculty, too! Mysterious ways...

But it gets even better. Anwar made some of the same points I've been making in class - specifically about the quasi-religious faith people have in the market (a legacy of faith in providence) or, in his terms, faith in the ideology of capitalism. (I'm sure the students assumed I'd asked him to mention these things.) For Anwar, as a "heterodox economist," the dominant views of neoclassical economists are a religious faith in the possibility of perfect knowledge and perfect competition - a faith which maintains itself in the face of contrary views and evidence by ignoring or suppressing them, and so has contributed to an economic crisis in which the opacity or duplicity of everyone's imperfect knowledge is coming home to roost: economics is waking up from a religious stupor. "See?" I wanted to say, "I'm not making this economics-religion connection up!"

Turns out Anwar's just now reading a book by a repentant ex-neoclassical economist called Economics as Religion! Providence may have let the economy down, but it was smiling on this university today.

Monday, October 20, 2008

What the economic crisis looks like

Sometimes eighteen pictures are worth a thousand words. These are all houses in foreclosure from a 4-block area in Queens.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ruing the day

Ever heard of Ruism? It's 儒家, the philosophical system of Kongzi, Mengzi, Xunzi... once known as Confucianism, the philosophical system of Confucius, Mencius and Hsun Tzu. I agreed to be part of a panel discussing two new books on Ruist ethics for the upcoming meeting of the American Academy of Religion, and I'm up to my neck in them, gasping for breath. I agreed when asked to participate because I would genuinely like to know more about Chinese ethics, but did not, of course, get around to looking at the books until recently. What am I going to say when I don't even know how to pronounce the names?!

Here's a line to ponder (Analects 6.25):

A gu [ritual vessel] that is not a gu
is it really a
gu? Is it really a gu?

One of the books to which I'm to respond spends many pages parsing this line, challenging alternative interpretations: it seems the reading of Ruism as concerned with the "rectification of names" hinges on lines like this one. What can I add to this as a no-Sinologist? At this point I'm babbling like a baby: gu? gu! gu....?!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

True passion

Just a week and a half after being disappointed by a passionless play about passion plays, I got to see a real contemporary passion play tonight. It's on until the 26th at the Rattlestick Theater, just around the corner from Doma Café in the West Village: if you're in NYC, go see it!
It's not a new play - you've probably heard of it. Ten years ago, it was all over the papers - because it was being protested and picketed by conservative Christian groups. It's Terrence McNally's "Corpus Christi," and this play's Jesus is gay (and from Texas). So, in the original production, were all his disciples, which got some prurient minds racing so fast the theater received death threats. The play was overshadowed by this controversy; word on the street was that it was something between lampoon and agitprop. Nothing of the sort! This is the good news with a friendly amendment, updated, amplified but (and!) true.

This production began in an MCC church in Los Angeles two years ago, and has traveled all over - the actors donating their time and talent. The cast is mixed - women as well as men, and of many different ages - which might seem to dilute McNally's idea a little, but really just replaces one kind of saving queerness with a deeper one. The actors almost all play across gender roles at one point or another, and the plot hasn't changed: Jesus still has a lover (I won't say who), and is arrested for having performed a gay marriage. But this is also the Jesus who preaches the good news, who multiplies loaves and fishes, heals the sick, expels demons and raises the dead - these miracles are performed on stage without any irony. (In 1998, a gay marriage might have seemed as much a miracle as curing a leper; how far we've come!) If there's a bit of the Gnostic gospels thrown into this Jesus' message, it doesn't affect the central story of love and sacrifice, which is as powerful here as it was in "Son of Man," that South African passion film I reviewed earlier this year, or in "Jesus of Montreal." Is it a great piece of theater? Perhaps not great, but it's moving, smart, and funny and serious at all the right moments, ending in sorrow and wonder. It's really a passion play, not just a play about the supposedly miraculous powers of the theater.

This New York visit, the culmination of 108 Production's work with "Corpus Christi," is timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the play's premiere in October 1998, and another ten year anniversary, too. Matthew Shepard was found tied to that fence in Wyoming the day "Corpus Christi" opened, arms spread wide.

Whatever you do for the least of my brothers...

UPDATE: Went again on the 22nd, with some friends. One, a friend from church, said afterwards: "That story hasn't moved me in decades."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Dephlogisticated air

This evening I had the pleasure of participating in a reading of a play. The play's not terribly good - it's Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann's Oxygen - but it was chosen for its content rather than its literary qualities. The performance was part of an occasional series of readings of plays about science. (I'm in the next one too - a deeper, richer story - where I play the title character, whom you've seen already.)

Oxygen is about discovery in science: specifically, who should get the credit for discovering something - the first person to notice it (or generate it in the lab), the first person to publish his/her findings, or the person who first comes to the interpretation subsequently regarded as valid? In the case of the discovery of oxygen in the 1770s, three scientists can claim one or other of these distinctions. Lavoisier named the element, and, by disproving the dominant phlogiston theory, was the first to understand it, but he wasn't the first to synthesize it (a Swedish pharmacist named Scheele) or to publish the method of synthesis (the radical English clergyman Joseph Priestley). Both of the latter believed in the phlogiston theory. Indeed Priestley called the new gas "dephlogisticated air," a phrase I (for I was Priestley) quite enjoyed saying. (The device above is one of those by means of which the sleazy Lavoisier disproved the phlogiston theory.)

The theoretical question of when and/or in what form(s) discovery happens is interesting, perhaps, but in the play as in real life, what matters is who gets credit. The play imagines the Swedish Academy's introducing a "Retro-Nobel" for scientists who lived and died too early to win Nobel prizes; the chemists decide the most important discovery was oxygen, then get into a brawl over whether Scheele, Priestley or Lavoisier should get the prize, individually or in some combination.

During our one rehearsal on Sunday, the actors groaned and eventually laughed hysterically at what a bad play it is. Part of the difficulty is that the same six actors play the 18th century scientists and their wives, and the 21st century Swedish chemists, changing costume on stage and entering every possible combination of characters - hard to follow if it were staged (and hell for the actors) but well nigh impossible with the actors sitting in a row beind music stands like a chamber ensemble. Another problem is that the play ends without telling us the outcome (I suppose the audience is supposed to continue the discussion; this play is clearly the work of pedagogues). This is most irritating as it's not even a question most of us know how to care about: the least the authors could do is offer us closure! So the only question from the audience was "who won?" - to which, of course, there's no answer.

Or is that another of the lessons the playrights, both famous chemists (one a Nobel prize winner), are hoping to teach - that the reality the scientist explores generally doesn't offer closure, at least not of a dramatically decisive kind? I'm only a few weeks into chemistry myself, but I'm getting the sense (from conversations with my friend who's teaching it mainly) that a certain indeterminacy persists - not just because no one of our models fully captures what we're trying to understand, but also because none of the models is entirely accurate in its predictions either, at least not yet... chemistry abuts quantum physics, after all.

It was fun to be in a play, though, however imperfect the play and limited the possibilities of a reading. The other players were all actors, three professionals and two recent graduates of our theater program, and I was by turns thrilled to hear how effectively they conveyed character and annoyed that, while I was probably the only person who understood much of the content of the play (not all, certainly, but I know about phlogiston from 18th century history of science), they all managed to sound much more at home with it!

UPDATE: Here's a Scheele for 2008.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dr. Frankenstein I presume

In Chemistry of Life today, we got to design molecules using a nifty (and pricey) software program called Spartan. Suddenly the Lewis dot problems we'd been doing seemed nifty too, since they now determined not only how elements combined into various compounds, but helped us program the appropriate 3-dimensional models. Once inputted, we could spin them around, and represent them in various ways. Very enjoyable! And the time just flew by - but not before my classmate S and I started generating random clusters of elements to see how each would bend, torque, and - when viewed not as "ball and spoke" but as "space-filling" - bulge like a weird in vitro lovechild of Botero and Murakami.

The Debate

Just two observations on last night's debate.

It's shocking that McCain thinks "spread the wealth around" is an idea which people will reject. Have we no commitment to our fellow citizens at all? Isn't that what a progressive tax policy exists for? And have we forgotten (if we ever learned) that the taxation policies of the last eight years have been concentrating wealth, taking from the working and middle classes to enrich the wealthy? If there's "class warfare" in this picture it's in the ruinous and regressive Bush tax policies. To keep them would be to perpetuate an injustice. How can righting a wrong be painted as a wrong?

I got goosebumps when Barack Obama repeated the words "terrorist" and "kill him" - called out at the mention of his name at a Palin rally - which led John Lewis to accuse the McCain campaign of reckless encouragement of race hatred. McCain doesn't like being likened to people in lynchmobs, but Obama has to live with the threat and the horror that the idea of lynching is not dead - and yet cannot speak out against it without being accused of "playing the race card." He had to change the subject (McCain raised it) by saying that voters care more about issues than about "our hurt feelings." What nobility.

I can't wait for this campaign to be over. The recklessness permitted McCain and his running mate and the restraint forced on Obama (both because of race!) depress me immeasurably. But we're better than that. I'm getting the stronger and stronger sense that we're going to do this thing, it's actually happening!... are others feeling that too?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Book ends

Anthropologie, a clothing store opposite one of our buildings, has window displays using old books. Intriguing but disturbing; it makes me sad somehow.

UPDATE: There seem to be window displays of similar design are in Anthropologie in other cities, too. Here's an at once horrifying and lovely-looking one from Corte Madera in the Bay Area (picture source). How many are there in all? Where initially I was picturing a single artist in Brooklyn (for ours is made of books with Brooklyn Public Library printed on them, presumably deaccessioned), I'm now imagining a whole factory somewhere, dumptrucks full of old paperbacks arriving in the back, and nimble-fingered drudges or interns folding pages...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Missing cultural capital

Teaching where I do (not just this college, but the USA), there's really not much you can presuppose students know as they come in. I'm aware of this mainly in connection with religion, of course, but today I discovered another and, in its way, more serious lacuna: basic economics.

In class we spent last week reading Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and today we were talking about the continuing legacy of the vocation idea (I had students read the first few chapters of The Purpose-Driven Life), and I was feeling my way toward the suggestion that people have a quasi religious (or secularized) faith in the market - or did until recently! After a while it became clear that only 2 of the 13 students had any idea what the market is, or how it is thought to function. To them, capitalism is simply the rule of the rich. (While McCain-haters all, few could do better than his idea that "greed" is the cause of the present calamity.)

So I found myself at the blackboard trying to remember the rudimentary supply/demand curves crossing at an equilibrium point; with a little help from the two students who had learned about economics in high school, I got it right - even as I recalled that I didn't learn this in high school either (well, not in my American public high school). But just think... my students aren't more ignorant than most Americans. How many of my fellow citizens understand even this basic (however simplified) Econ 101 stuff?! How can they possibly make sense of the world?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Autumn in the air

Spent most of the weekend at a church retreat at Little Portion Friary, the Episcopal Franciscan house where I came already last year (though somewhat later in the year). The weather was perfect Fall weather, the air crystalline and the light, dappled by leaves, warm and gently precise. Brooklyn is full of trees, but I seem not to have noticed them: I was as gaga over all the trees here - and the beginnings of Fall coloring - as when I lived in a treeless corner of Manhattan. Oh, and as I was walking in the woods behind Little Portion, I saw - was seen by - a fox!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

No passion

Since it's closing Saturday I don't have to discourage you from going to see the highly praised Yale Rep production of Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play". The production is indeed impressive, but let me say that I was disappointed to the point of perplexity by the play - I had high hopes that it would not only be a great evening of theater, but something for the next iteration of our Religion & Theater course. "Passion Play" is long and stunningly ambitious, and yet manages to seem strangely empty. I suppose we should have known what we were in for when the guy who took tickets told us there was free coffee during the two intermissions.
"Passion Play" is really a cycle of three plays, each an (excessive) hour long, about a community putting on a Passion Play: somewhere in Northern England in 1575 (as Catholicism is being suppressed), Oberammergau in 1934 (Nazis! Nazis!), and Spearfish, South Dakota in 1984 (red America!). The same actors appear in each act, playing characters who play the same roles in the Passion, so, for instance, the startlingly buff Joaquin Torres plays a virtuous fisherman Christ in the first, the gawky gay son taking over Christus from his father in the second, and a slick aspiring television actor in the third who uses actor training jargon in trying to make Jesus "real." Meanwhile historical and contemporary concerns, rivalries and romances, and Moral Questions like homosexuality and abortion make an appearance - and politics: the superlative Kathleen Chalfant appears as Elizabeth I, Hitler and Ronald Reagan. Exciting theatrical conceits - but to what end? One can imagine (I kept trying) something grand happening here... I tried... hard...

Big Questions are raised, or seem to be, or it seems must be, about art and politics mainly (about Theater most of all). But not, however, about religion. Which is odd, since one might have thought a play about Passion Plays... But no. Ruhl isn't interested in the Passion Plays as religious testimonies or rituals (or even in seeing the story shaping the lives of players in any profound way, as does the wonderful film "Jesus of Montreal"). That fish is long dead. It's just community theater with all its internal personality politics - and trade. Where there are miracles, they come from a village idiot who can make the sky turn red for no particular reason - and from The Theater, which offers us spectacles of schools of fish, model trains, assorted ascensions, and Elizabeth I holding a combat rifle as her pantalooned men carry off a wounded soldier in the Vietnam war on a stretcher (preceded by giant fish).

Say what? I guess I'm trying not to be offended by just being perplexed. Couldn't these issues have been raised without using the Passion Play as the trampoline on which successive acts jump in order to do their strange flips and leaps?

Getting closer

Thought I had established way better than six degrees of separation from Barack Obama when an ex-student told me she knew Bernardine Dohrm when living in Chicago - Dohrm is the wife of William Ayers, the professor of education who was (with Bernardine) a member of the Weather Underground and the "terrorist" with whom wannabe torturer-in-chief Palin accuses Barack Obama of "palling around" with. But then I learned that a scholar who's teaching a course for us next semester used to babysit for the Obamas (when they had only one child). How many degrees of separation is that now, one or two?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

On the prowl

In Secularism today, a second day on Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It's been a while since I read it closely, and it is a marvelous piece of writing - empirically refuted, perhaps, but compelling as a set of questions. Looking at the "economic ethics of the world religions" - how people's economic activities and concerns are shaped by religious practices and experiences - is still novel, gets us thinking in new ways. Maybe religion's about action as well as belief, about social structures and relationships. (It gave me special satisfaction to remind students that science plays no part in Weber's theory of disenchantment: it is not science that disenchants the world but capitalism - as religion short-circuits itself.)

Most of the Protestant Ethic is studiously "value-neutral" - so much so that students were maddened by what seemed Weber's endless equivocations. But in the last few pages he switches gear to almost Zarathustrian cadences.

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view, the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the "saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment." But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism–whether finally, who knows?– has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one's calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. Where the fulfilment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all. In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: "Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of, civilization never before achieved."

Interesting to read this week, huh. For next week, I'm giving students the mini-version of Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life, "What on earth am I here for?" Isn't the idea of the calling still prowling about today?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Transparency needed

The economy seems to be coming down all around us, bit by bit by enormous bit, and the repercussions are starting to be felt all around. Things whose connection I never suspected (not to mention institutions and economic practices whose very existence I was unaware of), along with rising costs of things from every sector of the economy, make me feel exposed, vulnerable, entirely powerless - and I have a job with something like tenure! I'm not sure which is more unnerving: the reminder of the impossibly intricate interdependencies of the modern economy, or the sense that many with powerful positions within that economy have been working it for gain at the expense of others. It would be tempting just to focus on the latter (down with greed!) but I think that's naive. Can anyone really make sense of the whole and their place within it? What can we do without such a sense? Many who contributed to the problem didn't know what they were doing, or didn't think about it, actually thought what they were doing was harmless or even, in some convoluted way, even contributed to the common good. High time to think about it!
But just thinking may not be adequate to the interdependencies at work - interdependencies so unsettling that the wrong approach to them makes things worse, in misguided attempts to flee them through denial, fantasies of self-reliance or the fideism of private-vice-public-virtue. Maybe what we need is some meditation, so that our interdependence might be experienced (and lived) not as an opaque sense of powerlessness or privileged irresponsibility but as connection and responsibility. (Source of the pic, available for $7800.)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Deluded optimists

At dinner last night with a visiting graduate student from Germany, I found myself praising an Op-Ed piece by Barbara Ehrenreich in the New York Times two weeks ago (September 24th), and even saying (I don't often get a chance to speak German, so I was pontificating a bit) that historians may look back at it as signaling a change in American culture. Hyperbole, yes. But it was a good article, and worth reading.

The Power of Negative Thinking

GREED — and its crafty sibling, speculation — are the designated culprits for the financial crisis. But another, much admired, habit of mind should get its share of the blame: the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking.
As promoted by Oprah Winfrey, scores of megachurch pastors and an endless flow of self-help best sellers, the idea is to firmly believe that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because “visualizing” something — ardently and with concentration — actually makes it happen. You will be able to pay that adjustable-rate mortgage or, at the other end of the transaction, turn thousands of bad mortgages into giga-profits if only you believe that you can.
Positive thinking is endemic to American culture — from weight loss programs to cancer support groups — and in the last two decades it has put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won’t get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you’re a “positive person,” and no one becomes a chief executive by issuing warnings of possible disaster.
The tomes in airport bookstores’ business sections warn against “negativity” and advise the reader to be at all times upbeat, optimistic, brimming with confidence. It’s a message companies relentlessly reinforced — treating their white-collar employees to manic motivational speakers and revival-like motivational events, while sending the top guys off to exotic locales to get pumped by the likes of Tony Robbins and other success gurus. Those who failed to get with the program would be subjected to personal “coaching” or shown the door.
The once-sober finance industry was not immune. On their Web sites, motivational speakers proudly list companies like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch among their clients. What’s more, for those at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, all this positive thinking must not have seemed delusional at all. With the rise in executive compensation, bosses could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the desire. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on.
Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendants, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily “visualizing” success.
Calvinists thought “negatively,” as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh attitude that positive thinking arose — among mystics, lay healers and transcendentalists — in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.
When it comes to how we think, “negative” is not the only alternative to “positive.” As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism — seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. We ought to give it a try.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Don't be grim

Went to a funeral today - well, a requiem eucharist - for Betty Bradley, a stalwart of the Church of the Holy Apostles. It was impressive and very moving to see most of the congregation there on a Saturday afternoon. Would that every life was lived as fully as hers (she was ninety-one), and every passing marked by a community and liturgy like this one.

Betty came to New York in 1939 and worked for many years as a model in a department store, later designing clothes herself, and then working as a buyer. Always single, she had a vigorous social life. In her many decades of retirement she traveled, went to cultural events, birdwatched in Central Park - and attended just about every event or group or retreat put on by the parish. She was the most upbeat person anyone knew, almost to a fault - a neighbor said that they had been close for years but one had to abide by the "Betty rules," which included "don't complain," "don't gossip" and "don't be grim." I did not know her well, but gathered from people's memories that many had initially found her lacking in introspection until, at some point, her insouciance and capacity to delight in things came to seem a precious gift and inspiration. She told someone that she'd decided "years ago" that being angry or envious or resentful was a waste of time - and hadn't been since. One can imagine someone saying that but really seething with unexpressed anger, etc., but Betty was proof that this needn't be so. Betty joined the parish fourteen years ago, and clearly performed a vital function - as others got lost in the troubles of th world and their lives, along would come a "Betty comment" to turn things around: not everyone's bad, things usually turn out alright, don't be grim.

I've not been to a lot of funerals, and this lovely gathering (the choir sang the Fauré Requiem, and the Communion hymn was the lovely St Helena) made me sad once again that I couldn't attend the funerals of my paternal grandparents. (My mother's parents died before I was born.) It makes a difference to have one's passing marked by a community, one's life celebrated, and it felt deeply human to be there. How strange to think of all the people one knows, alive today, whose passing one won't be able to mark this way - or even hear about.

International rumor

A bunch of international faculty and students came over for dinner tonight. Lots of fun! I miss the international experience - which is odd, considering what an international center New York is, but also not so odd, since liberal arts colleges offer a very American product which not many students from abroad know or value.

True to form, the international students included a good number of smokers. Which meant that when someone mentioned (in connection with what I no longer recall) that he'd heard that Marlboros were owned by the KKK, another student had only to reach into a pocket for us to consider the supposed evidence: that the negative spaces between the legs of the horses on the logo looked like two Klansmen holding a banner. (This picture from the web is of a Paraguayan pack, but the logo is the same.)

Now here's the interesting thing. Students from Iran, Somalia and Holland looked and looked but couldn't see anything. But when it came my turn to look, it was clear as day; the other American present had the same experience. I'm not even saying that the rumors are true, but that an image of Klansmen is clearly very strongly grafted into our American consciousnesses, immediately accessible, perhaps, indeed, the very archetype of a white silhouette against a darker color. How did it get there?

Friday, October 03, 2008

City eye

A mosaic alongside the stairs connecting the uptown local 6 and express 4 and 5 lines at 86th Street. Both the eyelashes and the iris are composed of buildings, each with its own design.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

More vice? No thank you.

PALIN: Of course, we know what a vice president does. And that's not only to preside over the Senate and will take that position very seriously also. I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure that we are supportive of the president's policies and making sure too that our president understands what our strengths are. ...

IFILL: Governor, you mentioned a moment ago the constitution might give the vice president more power than it has in the past. Do you believe as Vice President Cheney does, that the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?

PALIN: Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. ...

IFILL: Vice President Cheney's interpretation of the vice presidency?

BIDEN: Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history. The idea he doesn't realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that's the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


It was Marx's turn in Theorizing Religion again - always a happy day (as it was last year)! I framed it mainly in terms of cleavages and self-contradictions in species being (I've been trying to get the students to consider that the turn of the 19th century saw the invention of baleful modern concepts of race, of gender - and of religion as experience), but there was time at the end for Marx's exposé of the "religious experience" which is the last refuge of modern religion. We saw it at its inception in Schleiermacher's "intuition and feeling for the infinite," but Marx has in his sights Feuerbach (who had his own critique of religious feeling as "atheistic," a topic for another day):

Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled [t]o abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual....
Feuerbach, consequently, does not see that the “religious sentiment” is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyses belongs to a particular form of society.
All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice. ("Theses on Feuerbach," VI-VIII)

It is only the abstract individual who needs or imagines a mystical experience (of absolute passivity and dependence, no less) with the all, the universe, the infinite - only the individual whose life of relations and work has lost all sense of human meaning. (Marx isn't interested in mystics of the past.) A critique no less compelling and unsettling today than it was in 1843. (I also gave students the section from Kapital where Marx famously describes the fetishism of commodities, so they knew what this abstraction referred to - the displacement of use value by exchange value, where everything's interchangeable with everything else, value and labor and time are abstracted units... I explained it better here.)

(The text at the top is Marx's autograph of the last and most famous of the "Theses on Feuerbach": Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kömmt darauf an, sie zu verändern.)