Saturday, January 31, 2009

Twists and turns

This onion spun its eloquent tale as I chopped vegetables for a curry. Click the pic to enter its gossamer glory - you'll be amazed at what subtle narrative satisfactions its folds offer. I was.

Friday, January 30, 2009


I just succumbed to a Facebook solicitation for the first time - perhaps because it didn't require that I give it access to all my information but rather asked me to supply "25 random things about me" (it came in the form of 25 random things about an ex-student and the injunction to keep this - what we used to call a chain letter - going); vanity won out over modesty and caution. One of my 25 random things was: "I still don't have an iPhone." Instead, I've taken a decisive step backward, buying a new Razr to take the place of the cheapo substitute I bought last summer when my last Razr died. The new one is unlocked, apparently, but actually pluralist or just confused: it says AT&T on the back and Cingular as you open it up, before giving me my T-Mobile account. I personalized it with a photo of some souvenirs brought to me by grateful (or ironic) students: action figures of Sigmund Freud and Moses, and, in the back, a glow-in-the-dark Virgin from Fatima, in Portugal. With that triumvirate of protectors, it should make me more accessible than I've been recently, as the cheapo phone, too, started to fall apart! Give me a call!


Omigod. As I'm writing a blog post about books and Australia, I learn (from The Age online) that Book Affair, the huge used bookstore on the block where I lived in Melbourne (Lygon and Elgin), is burning!! It's in the two little white houses next to Percy's, the hotel (pub) on the corner. (Victoria's in the middle of a record heatwave - my sister reports temps of 44 C (110+ F), and that they've filled the house with containers of water in the event of a bush fire.) All those books... I bought a lot there - mostly Australian novels. Wish I'd bought more!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Over my head

I thought I'd be writing today about how going to see the New York City Ballet in a mostly Balanchine program deepened my experience of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, which I'm reading for next week's religious ethics class. The famous "leap of faith" is, after all, not a leap over Lessing's ditch, but a ballet dancer's seemingly physically impossible and effortless rise. The ballet was indeed splendid. But instead I was caught short by Fear and Trembling's epigraph, which seems to me to point to the origins of a phrase I thought I understood - I learned it in Australia, where I heard it often.

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:

Was Tarquinius Superbus in seinem Garten
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

Neon sign

You know things are going to pieces when the CNN sign facing the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle looks like this...

[The next day, the light's were fixed.]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ongoing experiment

In today's "Science Times" an essay by Dennis Overbye explores what it might mean to "restore science to its rightful place," as President Obama pledged to do in his inauguration speech. Overbye starts by naming concerns science-phobes have, then argues that science is the handmaid of democracy:

... 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

Mannahatta, 400 years ago

Four hundred years ago this week (or thereabouts) Henry Hudson first arrived in these parts, signaling the start of European settlement. What did he see? The ecologist Eric W. Sanderson has been working for several years to reconstruct what the island of Manhattan looked like at this time. I learned from an article in yesterday's Times that he has a book forthcoming, and an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society on "The Natural History of NYC" is coming, too. Apparently the island wasn't just greener, but acre for acre "had more ecological diversity than Yellowstone, more native plant species than Yosemite, more species of birds than the Great Smoky Mountains. ... If Mannahatta existed today as it did then, it would be a national park... It would be the crowning glory of American national parks.” (Of course, acre for acre is how a small place would want to be compared to the heavyweights!)

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


I've already mentioned (Manhattanophile that I am) that you can see the Empire State Building from our new digs. (Yes - we've moved!) What I've since realized is that, as you come into the room where I'll be most of my time, it's the first thing you see, diagonally across the room. (It gets smaller as you approach and the the view broadens out and sky fills in.) The person who lived here before us left a photo, now faded and warped by sun, in the window through which the Empire State beckons - perhaps he forgot it. The first time I looked at it, I saw the skyscraper of Brooklyn, the Dime Savings Bank - the view of which has been effaced by a new building under construction now off to the far left. Had my predecessor taken it when he saw the construction begin, to remember that you once could see the Dime from here? But then I realized the photo was of something else, and the photo substantially older. Behind the Dime are the Twin Towers. You could see them from here. You could have seen their end.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

An inauguration for the ages

The cover of the February 2, 2009 issue The Nation, "An Inauguration for the Ages" by John Mavroudis, is a joy: it'll make you cry. You look around (click for a bigger picture) and recognize a few faces - Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, John Brown, Chief Joseph, Gandhi, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Lyndon Johnson, Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Nelson Mandela... Eventually you give up and check the key and find many others, from Susan B. Anthony to Cesar Chavez to Harvey Milk. You almost start the predictable questioning about who's left out... and then you notice the very front row, and find yourself weeping: it's Emmet Till, and four girls. Their names are Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins: the Birmingham Four, who died in a KKK bombing of a Baptist Church in 1963. They'd be in their fifties today, and how proud...

Reading New York City

Have I mentioned that my course, Religious Geography of New York, is one of nine courses sharing a rubric called "Reading NYC"? All first-year students have to take one of these classes, whose aim it is to establish a dialectic between the city and the classroom/ discipline we hope students will carry on throughout their years here. As chair of the first year, it's my duty and pleasure to schedule these courses, and I'm having a wonderful time looking through the final syllabi of my colleagues' courses: "Nueva York," "Natural History of New York," "Poet in New York," "Sex Education and the City," "Photographic NYC," "Scenes of Recognition: Philosophy in the City," "Psychology in a City of Immigrants," and "The Visual Landscape: Duality, Difference and the Modern," on whose course page I found the remarkable picture above, "Nkisi Nkonde in a Museum" by Chris Miller (2000).

Friday, January 23, 2009

Invention of tradition

It is by now old news that most things we think venerably old are newer versions of old things, if not indeed brand new. I suppose I'm postmodern enough that this doesn't bother me, and pragmatist enough that I actually find it reassuring: How could one live with a past which resisted appropriation, reinterpretation, reimagining? Fundamentalists imagine (and unreflective skeptics believe them) that it is possible and indeed desirable to let the past assert itself in this way. It is certainly possible, and sometimes desirable, to allow oneself to be interrogated, challenged, stopped in one's tracks by an ancient text (or a modern one), but the best way to do this is to recognize that it is, ineluctibly, a dialogue. As Hans-Georg Gadamer made clear once for all, you won't learn from a text if you don't admit to yourself that you're asking it questions: the learning is, in part, the revising of your questions. But that can't happen if you pretend you're not part of the exchange at all. Ancient texts - in part surely because they were parts of still primarily oral cultures - don't hide the dialogical nature of understanding. The fundamentalist fantasy seems the ultimate in humility but is really hubris: it's a fantasy of not being human, imperfect but perhaps perfectible.

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

Going up

The upstairs apartment is ready for us to move in. The hardwood floors have been cleaned, and the walls have all been freshly painted (unfortunately in a light toffee color to set off the white doorframes, but that can be remedied if necessary). My window offers a distant view of an old friend - the Empire State Building. (The view above is from the place I lived in Chelsea 2002-6, also a 4th floor apartment!) And the roof seems ready to be colonized with a deck and garden - though not before Spring...!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Don't it feel grand?!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


President (!) Barack (!!) Hussein (!!!) Obama (!!!!) It was hugely historic as a whole ... even if not, I found, terribly memorable in its parts. Obama's oratory didn't soar any more than did John Williams' music. But who cares: the endless nightmare of the Bush years is over - glory halleluia!! Or, as this satellite picture seems to want to say: far out! And we have a thinking president unafraid to level with us, and ready to lead us to remake America. (But notice that the world has changed, and all our changes - the change we've been waiting for - must change with it.)

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


Fourteen hours before Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, I feel almost overwhelmed by the sense of history, of moment, of significance - and residual incredulity (reinforced by essays by all sorts of older wiser heads saying they still can't believe it's happening). It's like we're in the pages of a children's book. Since we're inundated with sketches and photos of the setup for the inauguration, I feel like I've already caught a glimpse of the big spread - perhaps the pages fold out! - of the story's happy ending. (Or maybe it's because I've already seen the children's books!)

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

Religion of progress

A week from tomorrow our classes begin, including my "Religious Geography of New York" for the first time since 2005. Just in time I rediscovered one of New York City's great secular temples, a whole complex of ziggurats to the god(s) of progress: Rockefeller Center. Lee Laurie's compass-wielding Wisdom (quoting Isaiah 33:6) is decidedly not not God... The shiny aluminum messenger below (yes, he's on the phone, with colleagues at typewriter and camera) is surely not not a divine messenger... And the frieze of universal brotherhood through trade and industry is clearly not not inspired by stained glass windows...!

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


Slavoj Zizek is the enfant terrible of contemporary philosophy and cultural theory. I've tried resisting his charms, but when some friends gave me his recent pocketbook Violence and instructed me to read it, I had to comply. He is often flashy but beneath that often brilliant, with something to say about everything, then the same thing inverted: as a Marxist and a Lacanian, he's expert at such inversions. You can't always tell what's an aside, but that's to be expected in a book whose subtitle is "Six sideways reflections," concerned to challenge a culture which focuses on spectacles of individual violence as a way of ignoring (and in consequence of) systemic and structural violence. Here are an aside, and an aside to it, which really charmed me.

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

All the thinking

Dear Sir Obama,

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.

From Mireya Perez, age 8 (San Francisco).
Picture by Alejandra Medina, age 8. Both from here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I'm flying back east today, from temps in the eighties to temps in the teens. My destination: just next to the big black frigid L. Brrrr!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Czerny etudes

Have you heard about the double prank by David Cerny, the Czech Damien Hirsch? The Czech Republic is the head of the European Community for the next six months, and has sponsored a work to stimulate discussion of the danger of stereotypes called "Entropa." It's also in the grand Czech tradition of mordant satire. Milena Vicenová, the Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to the European Union, explained: "There are many barriers to integration and cooperation in Europe. Stereotypes are such barriers. When we point out the stereotypes we begin demolishing them. Making fun of prejudice destroys it most efficiently." So first you piss everyone off...

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

New worlds and old

After yesterday's young Chinese American channeling Mayan aesthetics in animé doodles, here are some works by Mexican school children channeling Kuanyin, the Chinese version of the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokitesvara. I saw these today outside El Cubo, the new state-of-the-art addition to CECUT, the Centro Cultural de Tijuana. It's not insignificant that "Buda Guanyin" - El Cubo's first international exhibition - offers treasures from museums in China. (The models for the students were from Tibetan art included among the "tesoros de la compasión, de la República Popular China," also not insignificant.)

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.

[The picture of the old map's from Arqueología Mexicana vol. XI, no. 62 (2003), 15]


In the Cafe Roma at UCSD, a small show of drawings by recent visual arts grad Alex Chiu, including "chocolate milk and doughnut doodles."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Unenlightened being

Peter Harvey is one of the two Brits who've cornered the market on "Buddhist ethics." (The other is Damien Keown.) But this doesn't make him enlightened. Consider his cluelessness on gender.

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).
“Buddhist visions of the human predicament and its resolution,” 70-71

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

Migrant podcasts

My parents and I usually go grey whale watching off San Diego harbor on New Year's Day, but this year my dad offered something even better: a day-long trip to the Coronado Islands, organized by the San Diego Natural History Museum. (Since the trip was today, it also freed up New Year's Day for the Del Mar Penguin Plunge, where I joined a couple hundred other people in running in and quickly back out of the Pacific to usher in the new year.) The Coronado Islands are visible off San Diego but are in fact in Mexico. Two of the three main migration routes of the grey whales converge there, and there were so many whales we nearly stopped reacting. The first "there she blows" of our naturalist Margie was followed by "and there's another - three! four! five! six!" And on it went. One soon stopped counting, and marveled at the thought that there was a pod of perhaps thirty greys (Margie's estimate) migrating on all sides around us. On a usual whale watching trip you thrill to see two or three whales (and of course never get any pictures of anything)... Wow. And then, as headed out beyond North Coronado Island, we were suddenly surrounded by a megapod of dolphins - scores of them, racing by in small packs in all directions at tremendous speed (faster than camera could catch). Exhilarating! The islands themselves are home to sea lions, elephant and harbor seals, and colonies of terns, cormorants and pelicans. And did I mention it was clear and calm - a mild Santa Ana? And to top it off, as we headed back to San Diego, a big pale purple moon rose from the east just as the sun set in the west. Dreamy.
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...

State of denial

Drove up to Laguna Hills to meet my friend G for dinner today. On the way back, noticed the familiar Denny's sign at San Clemente - but it wasn't looking like this: the third and sixth letters were not illuminated. If I knew how I'd fiddle with this pic I found online, but I don't: you'll have to figure out the hidden message yourself - the secret of the Orange County state of mind. (San Clemente is a mere 20 miles from Saddleback and its no longer universally admired founder Rick Warren.)

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Right livelihood

Am having a grand time finalizing the syllabus for my upcoming course "Exploring Religious Ethics," which uses a comparison of Buddhist and Christian traditions to explore ethics and religious ethics more generally. I haven't been able to teach it in five years (I ceded its place in the curriculum to Religion and Democracy, and Cultures of the Religious Right, which seemed more timely) - I'd forgotten what exciting important issues this material raises. What could be more important, indeed, than the question of how to live, and how to do right by others? (The calligraphy is by Thich Nhat Hanh, tho' we're not reading him.)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Sole brother

Went to my old friend, the Geisel Library at UCSD today - the first time I can remember that I've been there when classes are in session. The campus was overflowing with students, many perhaps most of them Asian American, fraternities and sororities had tables out... one forgets what a state university is like, let alone one with a big forested campus.
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

Out of it

Felt quite the fossil on taking a blog-users' survey today. Consider questions 45 and 46 (click to see them):

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Religious cheese soufflé

One of the highlights of my 2009 might turn out to be the Parliament of the World's Religions. It's December 3-9 in Melbourne, my old haunt - but very far away, and at a very inconvenient time for those of us in the university biz in the northern hemisphere. And yet, how can I resist?
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:

Throughout the seven days of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the Arts and Culture program will interweave with plenary sessions, discussions, conversations and forums. Participants may wish to plan their daily schedule to include Aboriginal and Indigenous traditional dance and songs, the poetry of Rumi and other mystical poets, religious and spiritual comedy, African drumming, chanting from diverse traditions, fine art exhibitions, major artistic performances and much more. Major galleries and museums in Melbourne will offer special exhibitions and tours around the themes of the Parliament. Cultural visits to Aboriginal sites and centres will be a highlight of the program.

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!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Friday, January 02, 2009

Just a sec

At dinner last night, someone mentioned that yesterday was the longest day of the year - by a second. All the world's atomic clocks were adjusted one second, to accommodate a slowing in the earth's rotation. Turns out that drag from tidal movements, etc., has required a number of such "leap seconds" adjustments. The graph below, from eponymous Wikipedia, shows the disparities between the universally coordinated time (UTC) measured by atomic clocks and mean solar time (UT1); whenever the disparity is more than 0.5, a leap second is added.
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!