Saturday, January 31, 2009
Friday, January 30, 2009
Thursday, January 29, 2009
The phrase in question is "tall poppy syndrome," the tendency (now apparently moderated) to punish and persecute those who stand out, as one might chop the heads off poppies which grow taller than others. At the time I understood it as analogous to the Japanese idiom, 出る杭が打たれる, deru kui ga utareru: the stake which sticks out gets pounded in. Both described a conformist society suspicious of those who stand out, even (or especially) if they excelled in some way. Tall poppy syndrome was the reason, I was told, why Australians of talent never stayed in Oz but left for London, America, anywhere.
But now, from that famous Danish decryer of conformity, I learn that the poppies refer back farther, and more profoundly. More precisely, Kierkegaard quotes J. G. Hamann:
mit den Mohnkopfen sprach, verstand der Sohn,
aber nicht der Bote.
(What Tarquin the Proud said in his garden with the poppy
blooms was understood by the son but not by the messenger.)
This is the kind of deliberately obscure and hermetic emblem Hamann (about whom I taught a whole graduate seminar a few years ago) specialized in, and Hamann-like also in suggesting on the very first page of a book that the reader will almost certainly miss its point - though Kierkegaard adds the twist that his pseudonymous author Johannes de silentio probably doesn't know what he's conveying either. An editor's note explains what's going on, or at least what's being alluded to:
While engaged in war with Gabii, Tarquinius Superbus (an early king of Rome) had his son flee to Gabii under the pretence that he had been mistreated by his father. The inhabitants made him their military leader, and by striking off the heads of the tallest poppies in his garden before the eyes of his son's messenger, Tarquinius managed to convey to the son that he should put to death or banish the leading men of Gabii. This done, Gabii quickly surrendered to Tarquinius.
So tall poppy syndrome is also a way of defeating an enemy: makes sense, then, as a term used by alienated Australian cultural exiles who felt unappreciated at home and yet never quite accepted in the colonial metropole. And how sweet to use a phrase which the hoi poloi (like me!) will think is a humble farm expression but really refers to classical antiquity!
Of course, in Hamann and in Kierkegaard other things are at work, notably a Christian theological point about a father, and a son whom we may be tempted to think the father has treated badly: Abraham and Isaac anyone, or - and - The Father and The Son? For Kierkegaard, savage critic of "Christendom," most of Christian tradition must be the messenger, who doesn't even know what he's reporting. And who are the leading men of Gabii who must be put to death? The superficial preachers, the philosophers, or at least our inner superficial preachers and philosophers. But in Kierkegaard, as in Hamann, it's never as simple as this, there are layers and levels, inversions and allusions... What fun! Pirouettes as well as leaps!
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
... Science teaches facts, not values, the story goes. Worse, not only does it not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.
So the story goes.
But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.
That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.
Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.
It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter...
And indeed there is no leader, no grand plan, for this hive. It is in many ways utopian anarchy, a virtual community that lives as much on the Internet and in airport coffee shops as in any one place or time. Or at least it is as utopian as any community largely dependent on government and corporate financing can be.
... It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.
Soooo ... shouldn't a progressive institution, dedicated to democracy as well as to the virtues of "honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view" have a science requirement? Oughtn't all our students have experience with "interrogating" nature as well as deferring to nature as the "final arbiter," in order to understand the importance of truth in human relations - as well as the other demands these relations make on us. Overbye's scientific virtues aren't the only virtues around. Indeed, they're not always virtues - as Aristotle taught us about all virtues: every virtue is a mean between vices.
In particular, when do "doubt" and the "hunger for opposing points of view" cease to be virtues and slide into the vices of curiositas or an unwillingness to make commitments? Science may teach us the way to relate best to "the world," which requires us always to be ready to move on from wherever we now are. But might relations with particulars - particular people, particular planets - require something else, loyalty not to the utopia but the real? I'm not disagreeing with Overbye. It may be the best way to clarify the different ways we might do right by scientific endeavor and by our fellows (and ourselves) is to have shared experience of science as a point of reference, support and contrast.
Monday, January 26, 2009
Sanderson's work is described also in The World Without Us, and the striking image above - unfortunately only in b&w - appears there too.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Friday, January 23, 2009
Pardon the digression about fundamentalists and those who fervently believe in fundamentalists! My (not entirely unrelated) point today is that many texts we think are old turn out not to be. This needn't be a problem, if you're not a fundamentalist. The occasion for these rhapsodies was the news that one of the 20th century's favorite medieval prayers is, indeed, a 20th century prayer. The "Prayer of Saint Francis," inspiration to millions (and text, as you know, to one of my favorite hymns), was written less than a century ago in 1912 (in French), and popularized by Pope Benedict XV as an expression of hopes for peace during WWI in 1916. The prayer didn't claim to be the work of Saint Francis, but presumably came to be associated with him because it was frequently printed on the back of cards with his image on them.
So, does it matter that these words never passed Saint Francis' lips? Not really, since we have to live now, where both his name and the prayer can pass our lips. Indeed, if we're inspired by these words, we might be even more so, since the source is closer to us - not a saint - and responding to conditions more like our own. But the revelation of its non-antiquity and its non-canonized authorship does bring a little sense of sadness. The postenlightenment - especially the postenlightenment religious - imagination has so much invested in an image of the middle ages which, we're only gradually realizing, is a modern projection rather than a saving missive from a simpler, purer time. But this gives me a chance to put my money where my mouth is. Do we really want to know what Francis and his world were like, now that it's clearer and clearer that he wouldn't recognize his image in our eyes?
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
The inauguration did provide some interesting grist for a religionist's mill, though. There was Obama's Pauline call to the nation to grow up (1 Corinthians 13:11), and his unprecedented acknowledgment of American Hindus - and nonbelievers. But I'm referring, of course, to the clerical trio of Gene Robinson, Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery. All Protestants (sort of), all men, all calling us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God, but interestingly different... It's worth reading all three. They bespeak not just different moods of Christianity, but different Christianities.
Bishop Robinson's Blessing, which kicked off the inaugural festivities yesterday, struck me as prophetic but somewhat dark. He'd made a point of not saying anything specifically Christian, but could he not have spoken of joy and hope and solidarity and such? Why the somber tone: Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS. Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future... I don't think he's embittered by the Warren fracas, though I'm sure many of his friends are. My guess is that Robinson tailored his comments to the man Obama, who's consulted with him several times in recent months about the challenges of being "the first" of something. It may reflect an important element in our new president's soberly energetic Niebuhrian sensibilities.
Pastor Rick Warren's Invocation seemed to me aggressively humble - or do I just mean aggressive? Appealing to Judaism and Islam in its opening, it ended with a testimonial to the saving power of Christ: Yeshua, Isa, Jesús, Jesus. (Jesus wasn't mentioned in this way in an inauguration before 2001, I gather [actually it's only the use of Jesus' name that's really new; compare past invocations], and before 1937 inaugurations had no prayers at all.) Warren's text is harmless enough when you read it, even nice, but his manner in reciting it was hard, his consonants harsh. He may have felt defiant in the face of hostility from the crowd (he's got a martyr complex these days), but the words, too, describe a God of judgment (may we never forget that one day all nations and all people will stand accountable before you) and mercy, not of love. The last months have changed Warren's public persona, and perhaps his constituency. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Now that the iron fist is visible beneath his Hawaiian glove, he'll appeal more to conservative Evangelicals (though they've been suspicious of him in the past) and less to the moralistic therapeutic deists who make up most of the land.
Where I felt the love was in Reverend Lowery's Benediction, which began with a verse of "Lift every voice and sing" (sometimes called the Negro National Hymn [the same words ended Sharon Watkins' sermon at the National Prayer Service on the 21st]) and ended with some knowingly retro black liberationist rhymes which delighted many (but not all). It was the most Biblical - as in this lovely weaving together of Micah 4:3-4 and Amos 5:24 with the Gospel's repeated injunction, "be not afraid"): With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. But the vision of each with her or his own vine and fig tree (a favorite, apparently, also of George Washington) is universal: where Warren's vision narrowed, Lowery's opens out in love: because we know you got the whole world in your hands, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Lowery's faith is blessed with tears and anger, but also with love and hope.
Not sure where this leaves us - the trajectory from prophecy through defiance to love may or may not have been what Obama intended. I'll leave you with Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem, "Praise song for the day," which is also about the transformative power of love:
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."
We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."
We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.
Monday, January 19, 2009
In my first post on Obama just over a year ago, I fumblingly described the unbelievable hope he seemed to offer that "we could live in history, a history of growing justice and moral progress, and were not condemned to wander its disillusioned aftermath." Well, we are living in history! And with tomorrow's confirmation that it's not (just) a story for a children's book, the world will be changed forever.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
I'm fond of the mosaic at the Sixth Avenue side of the center (apparently called "Intelligence Awakening Mankind" and made by a Barry Faulkner in 1933) where a trinity of THOUGHT, SPOKEN WORD and WRITTEN WORD send out a distinctively 1930s set of angels to bring about (or perhaps I should say engineer) the fall of POVERTY and FEAR and IGNORANCE. Behold people being saved from POVERTY and FEAR by PHILOSOPHY, PUBLICITY and HYGIENE. (They're backed by by PHYSICS, BIOLOGY and SPORTS.) And liberating those threatened by IGNORANCE (and backed up by NEWS, POLITICS, and POETRY) are RELIGION, DRAMA and MUSIC.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
In Europe, the ground floor in a building is counted as 0, so that the floor above it is the first floor, while in the U. S., the first floor is at street level. In short, Americans start to count with 1, while Europeans know that 1 is already a stand-in for 0. Or to put it in more historical terms, Europeans are aware that prior to beginning a count, there has to be a “ground” of traditions, a ground which is always already given and, as such, cannot be counted, while the U. S., and with no premodern historical tradition proper, lacks such a ground. Things begin there directly with self-legislated freedom. The past is erased or transposed onto Europe. This lack of ground thus has to be supplemented with excessive speech… (164)
The aside to this is a note to the penultimate sentence:
Perhaps this feature accounts for another weird phenomenon: in (almost) all American hotels housed in buildings of more than twelve floors, there is no 13th floor (to avoid bad luck, of course), i.e., one jumps directly from the 12th floor to the 14th. For a European, such a procedure is meaningless: who are we trying to fool? As if God doesn’t know that what we designated as the 14th floor is really the 13th floor? Americans can play this game precisely because their God is just a prolongation of our individual egos, not perceived as a true ground of being. (230n10)
You'll have to read more to see that these are both witty apperçus and emblems of a theory about the importance of acknowledging absence as the condition of a liberating universalism (I think!). Even without knowing the rest, though, there is so much packed in here, you could spend an entire evening unpacking it. And then unpacking your unpackings, backpeddling from the bits you're at first inclined to shout from the rooftops, then ceding on some you dismissed out of hand... Part of the pleasure is imagining that there actually is such a thing as a single "America" to analyze, not to mention a single "Europe." In fact, as Zizek notes in a lecture the European Graduate School has put online to which one of my firstyears referred me last semester, in Poland the floors go directly from 0 to 2...
I'm far from agreeing with everything I've read, heard and seen of Zizek (he's the subject also a documentary called "Zizek!"), but there is an intoxicating urgency to his ideas - not just to the way he presents them. Ideas matter, culture matters, everything demands thought: philosophy!
Friday, January 16, 2009
These are the first 10 things you should do as president:
1. Make everyone read books.
2. Don’t let teachers give kids hard homework.
3. Make a law where kids only get one page of homework per week.
4. Kids can go visit you whenever they want.
5. Make volunteer tutors get paid.
6. Let the tutors do all the thinking.
7. Make universities free.
8. Make students get extra credit for everything.
9. Give teachers raises.
10. If No. 4 is approved, let kids visit the Oval Office, but don’t make it boring.
Picture by Alejandra Medina, age 8. Both from here.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The piece, which cost 50,000 Euros, looks like the parts for a model plane or boat and claims to be by twenty-seven artists, each charged with creating an image of her/his country which plays up or inverts a common stereotype. Most are facile, some obscure, others draw blood. In fact, as the Czech representative in Brussels apparently only just found out (!), the whole thing is the work of Cerny and two collaborators. If its intention was to stir things up (possible since it's presumably a commission of Euro-sceptic Vaclav Klaus), it seems to succeeding handily. Denmark's some abstract Lego figures, Italy's a soccer match, France is on strike, Portugal's a butcher block with steaks in the shape of its former colonies, Germany's a vaguely swastika-shaped mesh of freeways, Belgium's a box of chocolates, Lithuania's five "Manneken Piss" urinating over the border to Russia, Sweden's an Ikea box, Bulgaria's a Turkish toilet (?), England's ... missing, and the Czech Republic is an LED sign spooling the wonderful insights of Vaclav Klaus. And then there's the above for the Netherlands. Wicked but witty...!
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
I'd never been to CECUT before (in fact, it's been years since I've been to Tijuana, for all its being just across the border), so it was also my first visit to their ethnographic-historical Museo de las Californias. It was eye-opening to experience the history of California not only starting with indigenous peoples, but, once Europeans show up, from Baja's south very slowly north. Look at Andrés Marcos Burriel's Noticias de la California y de su conquista temporal y espiritual (Madrid, 1757):You see what's now the US state of California? That's right - it's not there! What's at one point in the exhibition called "continental California" was an afterthought, rendered by the California current more distant and less interesting than the Philippines. Just the way our California's famous twenty-one Franciscan missions are just the tail end of a series of sixty-one missions started 86 years earlier near present-day Mulegé - and by Jesuits. (We only got Franciscan missions because the move into Alta California - as it's also sometimes called - came after the suppression of the Jesuits. Alta California here seems a gratuitous and perhaps regrettable accident, a late child which has turned against you. I was reminded of the curiously edifying historical vertigo induced by the map of North America - with francophone-named places only - inscribed in the floor of the Musée de l'Amérique Française in the city of Québec.
Monday, January 12, 2009
According to the karma-rebirth perspective we have all been male and female, many times before (Harvey, 2000, pp. 453-410). Admittedly, gender has a tendency to stay the same from one life to the next, but it may change if a person has a strong aspiration that this be so, or if the working out of karma makes this appropriate. For example, in one text (Norman, 1971, pp. 41-4), an enlightened nun recalls some of her past lives, saying that, as a result of once being a male adulterer, some of her future lives were as females in unhappy marriages. In rebirth terms, a female form is seen as slightly less fortunate than a male one, but only because it tends to involve more forms of suffering. These include menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth, and the subordinate position of women in many societies (Woodward, 1927, pp. 162-3).
Buddhism couldn't have anything to do with the subordinate position, could it? Or the idea that women in unhappy marriages are being punished for previous lives as male adulterers? Pu-leeeze.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
It is interesting to consider that so many of our fellow animals migrate (if you haven't seen "Le peuple migrateur" - flatfootedly translated as "Winged migration" - do!), as of course did most of our ancestors. Maybe questions like "what am I here for?" should take us not in thought to other worlds but in body to other parts of this one. Perhaps the metaphysical questions arise when we become stationary and the world comes to seem a spectacle we passively watch unfold before us, wondering how we fit back into it - if at all. Wow: Watsuji dynamized...
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
UCSD's been growing in recent years - I got lost in the small city of new science centers, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, etc.! And the Price Center, with its outdoor food court and bookstore etc., has expanded to include an indoor food court, which has inspiring words underfoot, from the likes of Confucius, Virginia Woolf, John Stuart Mill, and this one. Can you make it out? It's W. E. B. DuBois: It's a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others. Is underfoot the right way to help students stumble on this insight?
Monday, January 05, 2009
Sunday, January 04, 2009
I participated in the last PWR in Barcelona in 2004 (where I filmed these whirling dervishes), and was both bemused and edified. The Parliaments of World Religions began in 1893 as an add-on to the Chicago World's Fair (by providing a platform for various religious figures from Asia it made important contributions to American spiritual life), and were revived in 1993. "Parliament" is used figuratively to signal an attempt to represent all religions; it's not a legislative or even deliberative body. In fact a PWR is a more like a farm show and county fair. In Barcelona (where the PWR was part of a world's fair-like "Forum") I attended many sessions on interfaith dialogue and encounter, each a panel of luminaries and local heroes - and all said the same worthy banal things, because forced to a level of bland generality by time constraints. Although an intellectually and dramatically unsatisfying spectacle, it's still somehow moving as an event. (But then I actually enjoyed the Hallmark Visitors Center in Kansas City, too, seriously.) As the accolades to that infomercial for nice religion Bill Moyers inflicted on us ten days ago show, much of the world needs to learn that religions can be harmless or even friendly.
The 2009 PWR interests me because it's in Melbourne - the religious geography of that cosmopolitan city will surely be on display - but also because one main theme is the significance of indigenous traditions to our understanding of world religions. Here's how the organizers describe the cultural events planned as part of the Parliament:
I might be able to present something to one of the PWR panels, as I did in 2004. (Suggestions welcome - I'd love to figure out a way to talk about the future of religion.) The PWR will help both my Fall classes, too: I'll be teaching a new course called "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion" and will include a discussion of the 1893 PWR in Theorizing Religion. But of course the main draw is, well, Melbourne!
Friday, January 02, 2009
The graph also shows something else - natural processes aren't smooth and clean: the rotation of the earth "slows down continually, though at a slightly variable rate." Coincidentally this connects to my new year's resolution for 2009: to learn more about and try to ponder the significance of what might be called the "regular irregularity" of natural processes. This is something I started to apprehend in 2008, observing geological and wave patterns from airplanes, trying to concentrate on my breath at a Buddhist retreat, marveling at the cycle of the tides, all this leavened by repeated encounters with ideas of "emergence" and growing awareness of interdependence from both global warming and the unraveling economy, and topped with a new burst of interest in fractals. What could it all mean? Beats me - but stay tuned!