Sunday, November 30, 2008

Spin is forever

My friend J drew my attention to this rather remarkable full-page ad in today's New York Times, a snapshot of our unsettled historical moment.

Our lives are filled with things. We're overwhelmed by possessions we own but do not treasure. Stuff we buy but never love. To be thrown away in weeks rather than passed down for generations.

Perhaps it will be different now. Perhaps now is an opportunity to reassess what really matters. After all, if everything you ever bought her disappeared overnight, what would she truly miss?

Smart chappies, the DeBeers diamond people. They can tell which way the wind is blowing, and can pay smart advertising people to update their message that a diamond is not a luxury but the only necessity.

One thing

Behold the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world, newly rededicated this morning! The cathedral church (Episcopal) of St. John the Divine, begun 116 years ago and growing at the slow rate of its medieval forebears - the Transepts and Crossing remain unfinished, a vast cavern of unfinished black stone - was ravaged by a fire seven years ago, and the repairs and renovations have finally finished. For the first time in years, the whole long (and I mean loooong) nave was open, and filled with people (3000 perhaps). And the organ, whose every pipe had to be shipped off to its maker somewhere in the Midwest to have soot removed, was playing again too. Had it not been a nasty cold rainy day, the light of the cleaned stained glass windows would have sparkled throughout.

Sitting midway down the nave, I decided that the place is just too big - nearly as long as a long New York city block. The figures in the sanctuary looking like performers in a flea circus! It is certainly an accoustic disaster. The festivities began with music performed by a brass band, somewhere way up front. From where I was sitting, the melody was indiscernible; it sounded more like the tooting and jeering of horns in a distant traffic jam. Later some drummers let loose in the back; it sounded like being in the subway as an express train thunders past.

And yet one thing does work in that space - not the choir, not the organ, certainly not hymn singing, which is like trying to synchronize people in two different time zones. The one thing that works is, literally, one thing: a single instrument or voice. (I'm tempted to say a still small voice.) I've heard it before at an interfaith service after the Asian tsunami, when a shakuhachi's breathy melody seemed to fill the whole space, hovering and lingering. Today it was a solitary saxophone (Paul Winter), and its sound flowed through the space without collision or blurring. It's more like the way a single voice echoes in a vast canyon.

The ceremony was full of pomp with a huge cast, but what captured the weird sublimity of the space best for me was something I initially thought appalling - a windsock-like Chinese silk fish on a pole, which flashed back and forth above the end of the opening procession like the flag corps of a marching band. And yet, as the procession made its way deeper and deeper in, the fish - yellow and gold - was revealed to be darting and swimming in loops, exploring this newly rediscovered space and finding it could move around freely in it. A loosed spirit, cavorting in this space like an eel in the silent depths of a deep lake.

St. John the Divine is all about reimagining what a cathedral can be in the modern age. (In his giddy sermon the goofball Dean mentioned two cathedrals we'd recently lost, Yankee Stadium and Studs Terkel.) Maybe one thing a cathedral can be in this busy city is this - a site for the the rediscovery of the single voice, in a place where architecture fades into sublime natural landscape, where (to borrow words from Schleiermacher channeling Spinoza) "freedom has become nature again."

Friday, November 28, 2008

Artless religion?

Spent the day reading a brand new book (so new, in fact, it's publication date is 2009) called Re-Enchantment, edited by James Elkin and David Morgan. I ordered it while at AAR; it is, so far as I can tell, the first book trying to address the (non)relation of religion and contemporary art. I thought it might help me working through the religion and theater thing, but it's also helping me understand my artist friend D's perplexity that I, someone in religious studies, should be so uninterested in what he understands to be the object of religion.

Re-Enchantment isn't a book in the usual sense. It's part of a series Elkin edits, called The Art Seminar, and models a generous and quite involved kind of community and conversation. The first part of the book offers five essays as "Starting Points." Next comes the transcript of the Seminar, a day-long conversation between nine art historians, theorists, artists, and scholars of religion - all of whom read the "Starting Points" essays before beginning. The discussion ranges widely, but that's part of Elkin's purpose - to show that one can, however disjointedly, talk about issues he thinks the art community refuses or fears to engage. The discussion is indeed disjointed, although the participants go through the motions of engaging and agreeing with each other. But the real point is not to show that an impossible conversa- tion is indeed possible, but that the impossible conversa- tion, even or because it's impossible, is interesting, generate provocative insights, and is alive to issues of importance. The last part of the book (which I haven't got to yet) is over thirty short essays, responses to the transcript by people who weren't at the Seminar.

Interesting format. I'll know better what I think about it all once I've read some other readers' responses. But for now I'm struck by the different levels of discussion - some speak only philosophical aesthetics, some the language of psychoanalysis or ethics, some are caught in the folds of ideologies of modernism, one traces everything back to the iconoclasm controversy, and one is all electric prophecy. The arty participants seem more comfortable talking about grand ahistorical things like faith, transcendence, incarnation, disenchantment. The three representatives of religious studies (David Morgan, Wendy Doniger and Tomoko Masuzawa) are the least dogmatic, but for that very reason probably seem flat-footed to their interlocutors.

And yet I couldn't but cheer when Morgan said: Jim [Elkins], sometimes when you talk it sounds like you're saying religion and contemporary art cannot be linked, axiomatically, whereas [T. J.] Clark seems to be saying even if they could, they shouldn't. It's a kind of prescriptive distinction. From my point of view, doing ethnography, the study of lived religion, and visual piety, all that seems silly. I'm not working on fine art, mostly. If I want to know what people do with their images, I just go ask them, and I watch them. I see what they do, in their homes, churches, or synagogues, or in the streets, and then I compile descriptions of their practices. (141)

And elsewhere, where Morgan describe his field of visual studies as concerned not only with the object but with: the visual field in which the object participates, but is not the only actor. The object, in this sense, is engaged by viewers, by values, by histories, and that makes it possible to produce a taxonomy of different ways of seeing ... This may not be of interest to scholars of contemporary art, but the value of an approach that is less object-centered than practice-centered is that it lets us understand the worlds, the life-worlds, in [/] which images function: the ways they gather meaning and participate in different social occasions. For the subject of religion, and perhaps also the production of art, that can be very important: the sacred is created as a social process, an effect of engagement. ... It's not that I want to promote religion in art: I want to understand it. It marks life-worlds that are not mine, and they can be fascinating. (144-45)

Interesting. The artists seek or refuse enchantment, transcendence, while the religionists are actually interested in other people, too.


Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and my friend and neighbor J invited a bunch of friends and family over for a feast! I brought along an approximation of a pear tarte tatin. I'm getting quite into baking these days, now that we've entered soup and baking season, but that doesn't mean it's all masterpieces! Our local supermarket didn't have frozen pastry dough so I tried to make do with layers of filo pastry. Live and learn. The pears, baked in the bottom of the pan with caramel, came out beautifully, but the filo came out ... well, remarkably like the white meat of turkey - white, flaky, dry and unencumbered with flavor.
I stayed on after the other guests left, read J's 5-year-old daughter some bedtime stories - they have a few books in German, from a year they spent in Berlin when she was 2, so I read from Bobo Siebenschläfer, in German then in English - and then sat around the kitchen counter as things were cleaned up, with J, her husband B, and his mother. Big feasts are grand, but I'll take a smaller gathering like this one any time. Nice to have both!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


In the blog today I was going to enthuse about a terrific film about Mumbai which I saw today, Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire," and mention a few other interesting books, films and performances I've recently encountered which engage India...

But Mumbai was already in the news when I got home, and not in the arts news. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the train station where the film's happy ending takes place, was one of the targets of today's terrorist attacks on the city; at least ten people were killed there, and many more elsewhere. Hundreds injured, too, and the city at a terrified standstill. Horror.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Not at ease in my skin

I like everything about commuting by subway (besides delays!) except getting off the 2/3 at Grand Army Plaza in the late afternoon or evening. I'm part of a great wave of people getting off there, most heading south to Park Slope, the rest north to Prospect Heights. Not everyone who gets off is white, but hardly a white person remains in the subway cars we leave behind. I feel unhappy being part of this flood, jumping ship all together for our gentrified yet hip fantasy Brooklyns and - in the case of us recent arrivals in Prospect Heights - eroding historically African American neighborhoods in the process. Not quite sure how to say this, or why I'm saying it (a rueful usurper is still a usurper), but it's something I can't get used to. It troubles me every time.

Monday, November 24, 2008

When pluralism isn't enough

Today in my verily religion-hating Theorizing Religion class (this batch of students, not me), we discussed Diana Eck's essay "'Is our God listening?: Exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism" (from Encountering God). It's the only day in the syllabus that we read a religious rather than a religious studies view. (We also read some Karl Barth.) Eck takes a discussion from Christian reflection on the relationship of Christianity to other religions, and broadens it to suggest that for many religious views, what you believe is not the only important thing; it matters also how you believe it. Are you "exclusivist," assuming and asserting that your tradition has the monopoly on religious truth? Or an "inclusivist," who grants that other traditions have part of the truth, but of course your own has all of it? Or are you - as Eck thinks we should all be - "pluralist," recognizing that there are truths beyond your own tradition, and seeking them out through inter-religious dialogue?

Pluralism is hard to object to (I'm intuitively pluralist myself, though it can feel more like polytheism), and usually when I teach this text, at least some students, if not most, are swayed by Eck's eloquent exposition. It falls to me as teacher to point out the argument's blind spots. (The quickest way in is to probe why Eck is so opposed to "syncretism," and never even mentions the possibility of conversion; think about it.) But today she never had a chance. "She says she's a pluralist," said one very sharp student, "but she never acknowledges nonbelievers. On behalf of all religions, she's an intolerant exclusivist!" I tried to argue that atheists might be part of the inter-religious dialogue, but didn't get very far - unsurprisingly, these atheists can't imagine learning anything from any religion (but don't think that makes them "exclusivists"!). I didn't have the nerve to suggest that Eck got people's hackles up because they can't imagine any talk of "truth" which isn't designed to exclude, as opposed to understood as an invitation to exploration, an occasion for humility, or even a cause for urgent sharing - can't, in short, imagine that a truth might set you free.

One young woman hung around after class, so I asked her what she'd made of our discussion. "That essay is the Bible of 'Encountering Religious Pluralism'!" she said, referring to another course in our curriculum. It seems not one of the challenges posed to it in our discussion has even been aired there. Oops. I mean, hooray - that's why it's good to have many different people teaching in your program!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shape shifting

My alarm radio goes off at 7 every morning. Monday through Friday, that means Morning Edition, which eases you genially into the real world. On Saturday it's annoying Christa Tippett's Speaking of Faith, which I tune out with satisfaction. And Sundays, it's Saint Paul Sunday, a wonderful live classical music program. This morning, host Bill McGlaughlin's guests were the exquisite Anonymous 4, singing a little of the medieval polyphony for which they are famous, and a lot of the 19th century American folk music to which they have devoted recent recordings. (You can listen to it here.) I'd never heard "shape-note" singing before, let alone noted how similar it is to premodern tonalities. (I ordered the CD, first I've bought in a while.) In any case, it was a surpassing lovely way to start the day, though I confess I lay there this morning, under my two down comforters (it's gotten cold), and allowed myself to feel far far away from yesterday or tomorrow...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Modern pursuits

Went to MoMA today (to see the movie "Sita sings the blues," which was a somewhat perplexing delight) and peeked into the exhibition "Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927- 1937." A remarkable decade's work, where we saw Miró turning painting upside down and inside out, exposing canvas, pasting on bits of sandpaper and cutting holes in paper, destroying the boundary between collage and painting, working on every new kind of surface with every material to hand, all of it by turns angry and playful - like the loopy poursuit of the blue abeille by the feathery oiseau above. (The whole exhibition's available online.) One particularly enjoyable thing was seeing Miró's process in 1933 paintings which started as collages of newspaper clippings, and then ... Miró yo!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Tiffany light

A last flash of autumn color, bright like a Tiffany window, as the crisp chill of monochrome winter arrives.

A propos Tiffany, any idea where the picture below was taken? It's the reflection of a Tiffany window.... (N-YHS)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Museum worthy

Check out this painting. It's the work of Osman Hamdi Bey, who was the director of the Ottoman Museum in Istanbul at the end of the 19th century. A beautiful woman is sitting in a mihrab niche on a Q'uran stand, her feet on a pile of Q'urans (all objects from the museum's Islamic Arts department, including the mihrab). Painted in the Orientalist style, the work is called "Mihrab."

We came across "Mihrab" in an article by Wendy M. K. Shaw I had my Secularism students read, which explores the many ambivalent ways in which religious objects and sites were integrated into implicitly secular museums in the late Ottoman as well as early Turkish Republic periods. This painting seems to represent everything that's wrong with putting religious objects in a museum - a merely human beauty displaces (indeed tramples) sacred scripture and blocks the way to Mecca. It could have been painted in triumph or despair at the fate of these objects.

And yet, Shaw shows, it's a considerably more multilayered painting than this. For the woman is Osman Hamdi's wife, presumably his beloved. In Sufi mysticism the beloved can be a perhaps more valid way to God than scripture: the beloved is herself a mihrab.

Or is she a mihrab in a more secular sense, the way museums, sometimes described as "secular temples," are, a conduit not to a religious but some other kind of enlightenment? The Western aesthetic or enlightenment tradition? Hamdi's wife was French...

We had a fascinating discussion, referring back to our experience at the Rubin - and decided to take a class excursion to The Cloisters after Thanksgiving to complete our religious art museum crawl.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


In Theorizing Religion today, we were to discuss the second half of Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger, which ends with a famous account of the scaly anteater known as a pangolin, most unclean of animals to the Lele, but also the meat at their holiest feast, the one which (she claims) faces up to the ultimate insufficiency of human efforts at ordering experience in the face of death. Nobody had read that far, though - it's that time of the semester when everyone's exhausted and distracted, and waiting dully for the holiday eating of the (symbolically and gastronomically inert) turkey. Pity. There's something profound in Douglas' account of the Lele as "primitive existentialists" (a term she uses) and "anonymous Christians" (one she doesn't but might).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Making the rough places plain

Just watched online a recent NOVA on fractal geometry. Fascinating stuff, almost overwhelmingly so - since nature appears to be full of fractal patterns, from the pattern of a healthy heartbeat to the ratio of larger and smaller trees in a rainforest (or larger and smaller branches on each tree in that rainforest). Fractal geometry was discovered (invented?) by Benoît Mandelbrot - here's the famous Mandelbrot set with just one of the (literally infinite) gorgeous details below. But Mandelbrot noticed that others before him had noticed fractals already, notably Hokusai - those cloud shadows on Mount Fuji above are, you guessed it, fractal. (Make sure to click the images for a closer look.) (Source of the Mandelbrot pics, and many more.) Weird and wondrous world we live in, this. It takes my - doubtless fractal - breath away!

Monday, November 17, 2008


Never thought I'd sympathize with the authors of The Fundamentals, the series of pamphlets that launched modern Biblical literalist fundamentalism in 1915, but a book forum sponsored by the Templeton Foundation I attended this evening brought me close. The book being celebrated was Karl W. Giberson's Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. Giberson's conversation partner was Michael Shermer, editor of The Sceptic and author of the column of the same name in Scientific American. (They've performed together before, so both were somewhat too polished.) I'm not sure Shermer could have won in front of that audience, but Giberson definitely lost. All of the religious people in the room ended up feeling sold out by his slick and skin-deep answers to the sceptic's questions. I'll spare you the discussion, just report his deeply disappointing answer to a question my ex-student A and I asked him after: what's your understanding of sin, we asked, and does evolution have anything to say about it? Oh yes, he replied. Sin is basically selfishness, and evolution explains that. But we're not always selfish - we're altruistic too, as the most recent work in evolutionary psychology has established - which shows that sin can be overcome. Theological liberalism lives! But how is this Christian?!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Well Met

A cold November day, so I went to the Met. I went mainly to see the exhibition celebrating Philippe de Montebello's many years as director by showing highlights of the 84,000 objects (!) acquired while he was in charge. I'd heard it praised for its witty juxtapositions - like, here, of Lorenzo Monaco's Abraham, Noah, Moses and David, and Hilla and Berndt Becher's "Water Towers" (all acquired during the first 5 years of his long tenure) - and was not disappointed. Often I feel ambivalent about things acquired through the art market, but seeing the objects in such classy, cosmopolitan company, and obviously well cared for, I just enjoyed it: they've made it to the big league, I thought instead, and tried not to think about what a disaster it would be were something to happen to their new home. Enjoyed the early Buddhist palm paintings show, too.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Southern California's burning again! (Pics from the Los Angeles Times.)


Saw a lovely little film this evening with my friend D. (You can see it, too: here.) Good thing it was showing, as the main feature, Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," was tedious beyond compare.
Fall's holding on - the ginkgos' resplendent gold mixes with maple reds and a few leaves still green - but it's already time to make way for Christmas decorations, like these lights wrestling with a Midtown ginkgo not going gentle into that silent night! Some Christmas displays have been up since Halloween, of course, but this seems to be the moment when the lights go on, the windows sparkle, silver bells and rumpapumpum sound in the supermarket!

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Took my Secularism class to the Rubin Musem of Art this morning. It's the nearest museum to school (17th and Seventh Ave) but also well suited for our discussions, which this week have come to the relationship of the religious and aesthetic spheres. I'd have come in any case, as this new museum carefully calls itself a Museum of Himalayan Art, although almost all of its collection is Tibetan Buddhist art. But this season offers a special treat - their first exhibition of objects still in ritual use. The exhibition is called "The Dragon's Gift: Sacred Arts of Bhutan," and arrives with two monks, whose job it is to take care of the objects - not let them get secularized by being hung in an art museum far from their homes, where ignorant strangers regard them as mere aesthetic or ethnographic objects. (They made news when, on arrival, they performed pujas - ceremonies - throughout the city to dispel demons.)

We got to see part of the morning puja, which was fascinating. After sutra chanting in a makeshift shrine, one monk chanted on, beating a drum, while the other made a serpentining dancelike movement through the exhibition, purifying each image. This was done by pouring consecrated saffron water from an elegant metal decanter into a large glass bowl, but the way it worked was this: in the same hand as the bowl, the monk held a hand-mirror. The images were purified as they passed through the stream of saffron water to the mirror and back.

Cool, huh! I'm hoping it will change the students' experience of (their experience of) other "religious art" in museums. What is it the monk's saffron libation restored in these statues and tangkas? What would be the analog in Christian or Jewish art? Why don't we bother? On the other hand, is there a power in art for art's sake like that the monk's ritual preserved, which needs only to be washed by our devoted gaze?

(UPDATE, 18/10: We had a terrific discussion of just what was going on as the monks did their thing before us museum visitors - they might have done it behind closed doors before the museum opened. Did they become objects in the exhibition, despite themselves or by design? Or did they manage to change the museum into something else?)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Future perfect

A brilliant spoof - if it is a spoof, and not prophecy - happened this morning. Throughout the city, volunteers handed out free copies of what looked like the New York Times. I almost didn't take one, since I had my home delivery copy in my backpack, but the young woman handing them out encouraged me to take one anyway. Glad I did! July 4th 2009 may not have all this good news in it ("All The News We Hope To Print" is their motto), but it gives us something to aim for! And learning of these possible and less possible futures as one daily does from one's paper, makes it seem breathtakingly real, possible, almost there! (The dozens of volunteers who put this together - here's who's behind it - also faked the Times website: check it out before the real Times makes them take it down!)

UPDATE: The Times decided it's flattered! Their online article includes a link to a PDF of the whole spoof - download the one with spreads.


Interesting article in the Times recently on how Barack Obama harnessed the power of the internet in his campaign.

My.Barack.Obama seems to me icky, as did the e-mail we all got from him ("him") before his Grant Park acceptance speech. But maybe that's because I'm a meatspace luddite (not to mention because I have not experienced the power - the baraka! - of his virtual world to enhance my real world through new friends and the like), and because virtual things are still on probation for me. Don't they realize it's just a campaign staffer, and that the identical thing was sent to 10 million others, and see the "contribute" button still at the bottom? But they're not dumb, they're past irony. Of course it's a campaign staffer, etc. But it's real. Partly because the virtual contact is part of their experience of real friendship, too...

Now is it mind control? Is it the psychology of crowds? Does it subvert by making an end-run around existing and publicly accountable forms of communication, etc.?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Last week's leaves

Views out my window last week. Now the leaves are almost all gone.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The big questions

The big questions on all our minds at the moment, I imagine, an endless seventy-odd days from the end of the Bush years: What can Barack Obama do during this transitional time to keep his momentum, and to address ongoing crises and challenges? What can he find for his energized supporters to do, and to start building bridges to those who didn't vote for him? And, more worryingly, what will Bush and Cheney do with their remaining time in office? They've wasted few other opportunities for mischief!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Be happy

I haven't been to see a movie in ages, but I picked a good one today - Mike Leigh's newest, "Happy-Go-Lucky." Sally Hawkins (above) plays a loud young North London teacher of endless good humor and optimism. Not every viewer will like her, but I did. She's real, and her cheerfulness is real, too. At times she seems a child, but in reality (and unlike Amélie Poulin or Forrest Gump) she's actually a grownup in steady touch with her inner child. She has a deep insight into the mysteries and tragedies of life as well as its joys. She mentions the big questions (why are we here, what's the meaning of life, are you happy, &c) breezily but often enough that you understand she's alive to them, and wise enough to understand that simply being able to answer them would be no use at all. You only really realize what an achievement her good cheer is after the film finishes - there have been enough moments of stillness, worry and even danger that her happiness seems earned, fragile, even (because it would never describe itself this way) heroic. If I ever had/got to put together a film series on the good, I'd include this film.

(Hawkins reminded me also of my indefatigable Melbourne friend V...)

Friday, November 07, 2008

Excellent inclusion

Spent the day today at a conference at the CUNY Grad Center called "Making Excellence Inclusive: Promoting Diversity in Higher Education," sponsored by the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium. Not exactly scintillating, though the familiar and important issues being discussed have a new urgency after the presidential election. Interesting question which came up a few times, in response to the concept of "inclusive excellence" now being promoted by several organizations like HERC: how is inclusion like and unlike earlier commitments to diversity, and to those before them of affirmative action, tolerance, assimilation? One woman asked the question this way: "Does the idea of inclusion supplement or supplant that of diversity?" Maybe both: inclusion seems at least potentially a deeper and more democratic commitment than diversity (which is anyway worn thin by overuse). Elizabeth Minnich would approve, I think.


The new owners of our building want the 1st floor, where we live, but have offered us the 4th floor... Not sure what to do, though the possibility of a roof garden is tempting, and walking up the stairs would be good exercise. However, housemate T will probably move out in a few months to live with his girlfriend, and part of me wants to do the impossible - move back to Manhattan, where the action is. Decisions, decisions!

(PS, 9 Nov: I should perhaps clarify that the 4th floor here is not a maid's attic, but just like the first floor in dimensions - except for an additional half-room where the stairwell ends. Many people prefer the fourth to the ground floor of a building, as it's brighter, more private, and safer. In Brooklyn, whose brownstones tend to be 4 stories, the top floor also gets the breeze from the harbor, and roof access to skyline and fireworks views. We'd be moving up in the world!)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Purple still

So many ways to represent what happened on Tuesday, as the initial wonder fades. This one (which you can compare with results going back to 1960 here) shows something the three below (from the Times) don't.
For all Obama's decisive margin in electoral votes (364 to 162, with 12 still in process), and the fact that more people voted for him than for any other presidential candidate in U. S. history, we are still basically a
50-50 country. There are "red" and "blue" voters all over, something this map, the only map most people are seeing, conceals (but the president-elect knows!). Purple America is concealed in most of the Times' maps, even this very helpful one showing the size of victories in various districts. But it does show how important the Republican-rural/Democratic-urban correlation is... As for this one - wish-fulfilment for Democrats! - it shows the swing towards blue compared to 2004.
But, important as these different and trends are, we remain a purple country - something Barack Obama was one of the first to remind us of. Blue triumphalism would make the change we need harder, if not impossible.

In the end, Obama won 52% of the popular vote (the same percentage which, in the case of California's regrettable Proposition 8, seems way too meagre to be a mandate). Can the other 48% be reached so that the talk of unity becomes a walk of unity? I'm a bit skeptical, I have to admit, but I have to admit also that if anyone can do it, it might be the millions of young people the Obama campaign has energized and inspired, who are walking on air intoxicated by the possibilities of political change. Here are some of them on Union Square - where I should have been, rather than with friends uptown (notice the time!):

All of us who supported the Obama campaign got an e-mail from Barack Obama (posted, it said, before he gave his acceptance speech in Chicago because "I wanted you to be the first to know"), in which he said he'd be in touch again soon. What if the next thing we're asked to do is find a Republican and befriend her? Talking heads would roll.

PS Of course this famous poster is red and blue, huh...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


What does it feel like to be there at a historic moment, a moment of history (a happy one)? The moment it happens, people say things like "this is big, this is so big" or "this is the most important thing that's happened in my lifetime" or "this is like the man on the moon." You fight back tears. Even in secular Manhattan, as the pro secco flows, someone calls out "God bless America" and all concur.

As it settles in, it gets even bigger. You think of all the others who have been watching the results come in, in your city, your state, other states. (If you're me you also think of thosewho voted for the other guy, but not just yet.) Other countries, every country in the world. This was possible? If this was possible, then America... democracy... history isn't over.

And you start to think of those who died too soon to experience this moment. Generations struggled for this possibility. Impossible not to hear Martin Luther King's voice in the back of your mind, the same familiar words about a dream and the content of a man's character, incantatory repetitions in a permanent loop, but with a smile in his voice this time, a new twinkle in his eye. But I also found myself thinking of my paternal grandfather, whom I confess I haven't thought much about in years (he died while I was in college). I remember being so moved to learn that he supported the United Negro College Fund every year (he didn't finish college himself). Don't know how he would have voted, but he would have been proud, proud.
God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.
We did it!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Lining up to be a part of history

When I got to my polling station this morning (7 am!) the line already stretched around the block and half way down the next - longer than folks could remember ever having seen it. It took an hour to get inside P.S. 9, where the faces of the future smiled down on us, full of hope...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Really a gu

The new leaner, meaner AAR - in and out in three days rather than the sprawling five of days past, when AAR American Academy of Religion) met with SBL (the Society for Biblical Literature) - came and went in a jiffy! I arrived in Chicago Thursday night; I stayed with an old friend, H, who's at the Newberry Library this semester. Spent much of Friday (until dinner with C, another ex-student and friend, here for her first AAR) futzing over my paper for the Confucian Studies Group. Needn't have bothered, really; the discussion, at nine Saturday morning, wasn't interested in the mainly methodological questions I raised. I went to a few panels the rest of the day, meeting my old friend B for dinner, and LA friends R and A with H and her husband after. Sunday was similar, though I started with a few hours at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I was delighted to find the vessel at right - identified as a gu! (But if it's in a glass case in an art museum, is it really a gu?). And today, I met ex-colleague A for breakfast, went to one panel, finished my survey of the book fair, had coffee with B, another old classmate friend, and headed to the airport. It was practically over before it started!

Don't want to give the impression it wasn't an edifying excursion (except for my panel, which was really not terribly productive for anyone concerned). It was, as ever, lovely to spend time with old friends from graduate school, as well as other acquaintances and colleagues - and even a few ex-students! - from over the years. It is a sort of homecoming for the lone religious studies scholar exiled in an institution tone-deaf to religion and unaware of the existence of the discipline which has grown to study it. It was interesting to discern trends in the field (or at least in publishing) in the book displays - every publisher had a new book on Darwin, religion and science, if not several; books on secularism were common too. Fun to attend panels, even if none was a good as the best I've attended in years past, and learn about new things, like sociologists' efforts to define and quantify "spiritual capital," how Spinoza and Hobbes contributed to rendering the Bible just another book, a Brazilian gay theological reading of Frida Kahlo's painting of the wounded deer (left), Charles Long's idea that the others to European Enlightenment are the best guides to understanding the Wholly Other of Chicago-style Religionswissenschaft and vice versa, David Tracy's latest thoughts on the infinite, the "indecent theology" of Marcella Althaus-Reid, how British maps of India contributed to intercommunal conflict, and vice versa, John Milbank's assertion that only Christendom (!) can solve the problems of "secularism as such"... As ever, the most interesting panels were at times I couldn't go - during my panel (the first ever panel on Transhumanism & Religion!), or after I had to leave for the airport (Darwin in American religious thought) - perfect excuse to write to the presenters, though!

None of it seems very important compared to what's likely to happen in Chicago tomorrow, nay, throughout the land... Can't wait!