Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Orozco Room

Faculty Senate, 9:06 am

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sunday, March 29, 2009


In church today we sang "Wondrous Love," an American hymn whose harmonies surround the tenor line, rather than supporting the soprano. (It's 439 in the 1982 Hymnal.) I believe this is the "shape-note" harmonization I learned about from Anonymous Four a while back, and it's fascinatingly different from other kinds of harmony. As the singers move from the first verse, sung in unison, to the harmonized verses, the voices spread out in both directions, like a river rising along both banks. It seems to come from the gut, and really, well, swells.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


From 8:30 to 9:30 pm in cities around the world, March 28th is Earth Hour, and the lights are off! It started in Sydney but, as you can sort of see here, it's reached the Empire State Building. (I took the pic from the roof, and type this by candlelight.)


I've probably given you the impression that the view out the window is just the Empire State Building, and that Buddha head. But that's when I look out, not down. Looking down from the fire escape is a vertiginous experience. Now that it's Spring I find myself looking wistfully down at the neglected garden more...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Inbetween season

College tweet

Slide from a presentation on social networking sites and college education one of my colleagues gave today. He argues that we should meet our students where they are - Facebook and, especially, Twitter - and envisioned a university which embraces new media: if professors tweet miniblogs, all public events are recorded and posted, and everything - including student internet discussions - is open for all to see (inside the university or out), then the university is humanized and transparent, and students are better prepared to take responsibility for their actions and thoughts publicly on graduating! Or something like that. Not sure what I think...

Method knowing

Not just a fetching work of design, an exciting account of the way science is done; even better is the interactive version. I wonder if there could or should be an analog for other forms of knowledge production?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hard times

Saw this wall of ads for work in Chinatown last week - or is it ads from workers seeking employment? People really are losing jobs all around - a common topic one overhears now in restaurants and cafés. And at school, from students some of whom have to suspend their college studies because their parents have lost their jobs. And from recent graduates too. Hard times for all.

That special island

You've heard, perhaps, that the revival of "South Pacific" is well nigh perfect? Well, it's true.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I forsake the Buddha, I forsake the Dharma, I forsake the Sangha - not

Had our Religious Ethics class recite part of the monastic rule (vinaya) for Buddhist nuns today. This was in part because we're a day shy of the New Moon and the Pratimoksa Sutra is (supposed to be) recited every New and Full Moon, and in part because we'll be talking soon about the significance of sutra recitation as a practice (ultimately the sutra recites you). But mainly it was because the Pratimoksa Sutra with its 365 rules (we read a translation of the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada version) is deadly dull if you just read it. Texts from oral traditions, full of repetition, can be tedious to read at the best of time, even when they're not a deliberately expansive list of prohibitions.

But texts like these are not meant to be read. Given a chance to speak, the Pratimoksa Sutra proves utterly fascinating in content, form and performance. It's a community constituting and reconstituting itself in synch with the cycles of nature. It's a work of casuistry as well as of law. Like a lump of amber if contains particular cases of ethical infraction from the distant past enough to supply a historical ethnography of the early sangha; when you think of them recited over the centuries you need to switch to the metaphor of a pearl. But I also wanted students to feel what it is to recite such a text - to feel the words on your lips, resonating in your chest - and to recite them together with your fellows. For the Pratimoksa Sutra names (so you, the reciter, name) all manner of proscribed activities, and even things you should never ever say; usually they are repeated, too, in a formula both mnemonic and therapeutic. An example:

If a bhiksuni [nun], agitated by anger, becomes enraged and says, "I forsake the Buddha, I forsake the Dharma, I forsake the Sangha. The Buddhist renunciants are not the only ones who keep moral discipline, have qualities, are chaste and virtuous. The brahmins and other renunciants also keep moral discipline, have qualities, are chaste and virtuous. I can practice celibacy among them." Then the bhiksunis should say, "Noble Sister, you should not become agitated with anger, enraged and discontent, saying 'I forsake the Buddha, I forsake the Dharma, I forsake the Sangha. The Buddhist renunciants are not the only ones who keep moral discipline, have qualities, are chaste and virtuous. The brahmins and other renunciants also keep moral discipline, have qualities, are chaste and virtuous. I can practice celibacy among them.' Noble Sister, we admonish you to give up such a nonvirtuous view." If the bhiksuni gives up her misconduct when admonished thus by the bhiksunis, good. If she does not, she should be admonished and instructed properly two or even three times so that she may give up her misconduct. If, after being admonished and instructed peroperly two or even three times, she gives it up, good. If she does not, then the bhiksuni commits a sanghavasesa on the third declaration. (Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women [Albany: SUNY Press, 1996], 86-7)

Now, what does it do to you to utter the words renouncing the Three Jewels every fortnight, even in this setting? (Significantly it's only twice; some other proscribed utterances are repeated three times.) Won't it give you ideas, plant seeds? It is hard not to think of Foucault's analysis of the baneful influence of the confessional, with your confessor teaching you a whole vocabulary of vices you might never have thought of on your own. And yet this makes for a fruitful contrast. The iteration of vices (others we read were assorted flavors of lust and flirtation, covetousness, suicide, and indignation at being treated unfairly by your fellow nuns) in this setting is a kind of preventive medicine. Since the whole Sutra was memorized, the words and indeed the community regularly performing it would spring to mind the instant one of these thoughts or feelings arose in an individual nun's life - as, it seems to acknowledge, they almost inevitably will. In the short run it might set your mind racing at new possibilities of folly, but ultimately - with the help of the Sutra and of your sister nuns - it will let you master them.

... it is difficult to tame the wild horse of the mind.
This bridle of the Pratimoksa
Drives in the appropriate sharp spikes. (79)

Does it really? Even if it doesn't give you new ideas for vice, does not its formulaic character mean reciters will only go through the motions of reflection and repentance, making them less likely to take the wild horse of the mind than before? Might it not make people morbidly obsessed with infractions and overlook the positive new form of life the life of the renunciant is supposed to make possible? It's a gamble, sure. But the Pratimoksa Sutra knows all that. Recite with me:

If a bhiksuni, at the bimonthly recitation of the Pratimoksa Sutra, belittles the precepts saying, "Bhiksunis, what is the use of our reciting these very trivial, petty precepts of the Pratimoksa Sutra every half-month, when it just causes remorse, weighs on our minds, and makes us negative," she commits a payantika. (99)


In Religious Geography of New York we've just covered the 19th century, and I have students trace the outline of Manhattan and come up with their own grid. (The famous grid was imposed in 1811.) On the board I draw some schemata of street constellations - the tangle of an ancient old town, étoiles as you find in Paris (or Washington DC), a generic grid, and the beveled grid of Barcelona's Eixemple, which makes a square of every intersection. Only after students had shared their plans with vast parks, circles, museum districts, numbered neighborhoods, canals, submerged highways and the like, did I recall that we've just seen an example of regridding NYC with some of each on TV. The new NBC series "Kings" (which I checked out because it's based rather explicitly on the Biblical story of David and Saul) takes place in a new city called Shiloh, rebuilt on the ashes of what must have been New York. Scenes of Shiloh are of Midtown Manhattan only, the most famous buildings (Empire State and Chrysler) removed by computer, and towering at the center a shiny glass pyramid based on the Freedom Tower planned for the site of the World Trade Center. Can a gridded city like NYC tolerate a center?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Meditate on this

In Exploring Religious Ethics today, I introduced two kinds of Theravada Buddhist meditation, one very powerful - like shock therapy, I said - and the other very gentle. I merely described the first, but we actually tried a few minutes of the second. Meat and milk, you might say.

The first was the Meditation on the Stages of Decomposition of a Corpse, often conducted in cemeteries. I showed images from a famous medieval Japanese scroll; you can look at them too, here, but be advised they're not for the faint of heart. The pretext was a scene in Kon Ichikawa's film "The Burmese Harp," where private Mizushima, a Japanese soldier caught behind enemy lines in Burma at the end of WW2, encounters a pile of decomposing Japanese soldiers along a riverbank. His first reaction (above) is horror and flight, and a Buddhist monk arrives in a boat and lets Mizushima flee across the river. But eventually Mizushima realizes he must return to give these corpses a proper burial, and returns from the other shore just as bodhisattvas do.

The gentler meditation was a brief loving-kindness (metta) meditation posted on Beliefnet, led by Sharon Salzberg (one of the founders of Insight Mediation Society, where I encountered metta meditation last summer). It starts like this:

Take a few deep breaths, relax your body. Feel your energy settle into your body and into the moment. See if certain phrases emerge from your heart that express what you wish most deeply for yourself, not just for today, but in an enduring way. Phrases that are big enough and general enough that you can ultimately wish them for all of life, for all beings everywhere.
Classical phrases are things like, "May I live in safety. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease."

and ends, after you have expanded the circle of your concerns from yourself to a friend, a someone in trouble, a co-worker and ultimately to all beings, like this:

May all beings live in safety, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.
All people, all animals, all creatures, all those in existence, near and far, known to us and unknown to us. All beings on the earth, in the air, in the water. Those being born, those dying.
May all beings everywhere live in safety, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.
You feel the energy of this aspiration extending infinitely in front of you, to either side, behind you, above and below. As the heart extends in a boundless way, leaving no one out, may all beings live in safety, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.

If the first kind of meditation shocks you into an awareness of impermanence and the evanesence of "self," the second shows self to be self-transcending if you give it a chance. Ethics isn't the opposite of self-regard but its extension. As one experiences how naturally the metta applies to others one realizes it was never just self-regard in the first place (and not just because there is no self).

I waxed rather purple about it, quite forgetting my academic self...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Live streaming

A propos water in New York... here's a detail of Egbert L. Viele's 1865 Sanitary and Topographical Map of NY. (See it all here.) I hear it's still used today to see where the island's many rivers and streams flow... I knew that Minetta Lane bends because it traces an ancient riverbed but had no idea that Minetta Creek also flowed through the block where The New School landed! Did I say "flowed"? It must be flowing still.

World Water Day

After church today I went to the Chelsea Market, which has up a big photo exhibit by a water charity called Charity: Water. (The pic's the only one on their site.) Interesting to see this as I was rereading (for the NYC course) the amazing story of the Croton Aqueduct which has for 160 years supplied NYC with clean water - and it's World Water Day too.

Quik Park

Hard to resist the call of this estate sale on West 58th Street - best of America, cheap! - but somehow I managed.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


The cultural programming team at the Rubin Museum of Art are brilliant. In just a few years, they've made RMA a go-to place for smart hip events, all presented with a gently sly Tibetan Buddhist smile. Take last night's free movie, Miyazaki Hayao's "Howl's Moving Castle" - free, that is, if you buy a cocktail. It was part of their "Green Tara Series," which offers a film for each of the eight fears from which Green Tara is traditionally shown to protect people: mighty winds, being trampled by elephants, banditry, false imprisonment, ghosts, drowning, fire and being mauled by lions. "Howl" sort of fit the fire slot, since a fire demon named Calcifer plays an important part in the story, and the film might be seen as demonstrating the Tantrizable wisdom that fire is a good servant but a bad master. I'm not confident that that's what this rather obscure animated film is actually about - this was my third time seeing it, and I'm ready to give up - but seeing its protagonist Sophie as in fact Green Tara makes as much sense of it as anything I can come up.

There was another Buddhisty perk to seeing "Howl" in this setting. The screening was introduced by Emily Mortimer, the English actress who provides the voice for the young Sophie in the English version. (Sophie is 18 but is cursed by a witch to become a 90-year-old woman and spends the rest of the film looking now younger now older on the way to becoming ageless, free and powerful - and getting the boy.) But Mortimer was sought out, we learned, because they'd already cast Jean Simmons as the old Sophie and needed someone whose voice sounded like the young Simmons. So her casting in "Howl" was for Mortimer an analog to the experience Sophie has in the movie of confronting her own future as an old woman. If an animated film from Asia can flash out this way in the live action West, why not tangka paintings of Tara, too?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ra Ra!

One of my students is profiled in the Times today!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Daily Me

Disconcerting news in Nicholas Kristof's column today, which provides a broader perspective for why the shuttering of so many American newspapers is such bad news. The way we get news without a public media is self-serving and subjective, part of cultural shifts away from engagement with other realities than those we like to think about. And us educated folk turn out to be among the worst offenders.

Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.

That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.

One classic study sent mailings to Republicans and Democrats, offering them various kinds of political research, ostensibly from a neutral source. Both groups were most eager to receive intelligent arguments that strongly corroborated their pre-existing views.

There was also modest interest in receiving manifestly silly arguments for the other party’s views (we feel good when we can caricature the other guys as dunces). But there was little interest in encountering solid arguments that might undermine one’s own position.

... The effect of The Daily Me would be to insulate us further in our own hermetically sealed political chambers. One of last year’s more fascinating books was Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” He argues that Americans increasingly are segregating themselves into communities, clubs and churches where they are surrounded by people who think the way they do.

Almost half of Americans now live in counties that vote in landslides either for Democrats or for Republicans, he said. In the 1960s and 1970s, in similarly competitive national elections, only about one-third lived in landslide counties.

“The nation grows more politically segregated — and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups,” Mr. Bishop writes.

One 12-nation study found Americans the least likely to discuss politics with people of different views, and this was particularly true of the well educated. High school dropouts had the most diverse group of discussion-mates, while college graduates managed to shelter themselves from uncomfortable perspectives.


a tree in Philadelphia

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wee planets

A portfolio of photos by Alexandre Duret-Lutz on the website of The Australian includes this image of one of my favorite places in Paris. Duret-Lutz's "wee planets" conceit (consciously evocative of the planet of the petit prince?) works wonderfully for the bizarre Renaissance pile of St. Etienne du Mont. (Yes, that's the Panthéon across the planet.)


Next in Religious Geography we're considering grids. Is it indeed true that a grid (like New York's famous 1811 one) destroys the experience of unique space (sometimes called place as opposed to space), along with removing any common spaces? Or does use find meaning despite or even in the grid? This painting by Mondrian, "Composition in Black and Gray: Composition with Grid 3: Lozenge Composition" (1919), part of the Cézanne and Beyond exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and visible in far greater detail here) should raise the question nicely...


Just so you don't think I'm going nowhere for Spring Break, I've just been on two very satisfying day trips. Yesterday I trained out to Princeton to see an old professor, hang out in the Religion Department lounge and binge at the Princeton Record Exchange. And today I bused (Chinatown bus!) to Phillie to see the exhibition Cézanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, certainly one of the most satisfying exhibitions I've ever seen - I'll tell you more about it in another post. (To explain the pictures: above - it's break at PU too, so the only people on campus were Korean tourists; below - the Philadelphia Museum is a Greek historicist folly in warm stone and even warmer colors.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

That's rIchual

Got curious the other day about the Fetzer Institute for Love and Forgiveness, one of the sponsors of PBS' "Speaking of Faith." On their website I found the online Letting Go Ritual below - I dare you to click and try it. Their explanation of what it is and what it's for:

A ritual is a series of focused actions taken with a specific goal in mind. In this case the goal is to let go and forgive. While the term is often used in a spiritual setting, many communities and individuals from therapists to business consultants now use mindful action as a tool to break through tightly-held patterns of thought and behavior. Use this process to analyze, specify and release a hurt, thought, injury or issue in your life.

Whatever you may think of the efficacy of such a ritual (again I invite you to try it - it won't take but a minute), it's hard not to wonder who the Fetzer Institute are and why they care. One can understand an insurance company's sponsoring a public "Responsibility Project." But forgiveness? And why are they so solicitous as to offer assistance not only in forgiving things which others have done to you but also forgiving yourself for things you've done to others? Here's their mission statement:

Our mission, to foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community, rests on our conviction that efforts to address the world's critical issues must go beyond political, social, and economic strategies to their psychological and spiritual roots.

Say what? I'm not doubting the power of forgiveness, and of examples of forgiveness. Forgiveness is definitely one of the miracles of our lives. But who are these folks and why are they encouraging us to be forgiving? What "critical issues" of the "emerging global community" can only be addressed by means of "love and forgiveness," resisting "political, social, and economic strategies"? They don't seem to be a religious organization keen to make us aware that we are sinners but forgiven, or that the "roots" of greed, hatred and delusion are "spiritual." Some light is shed by the biography of their founder and namesake, John Fetzer (1901-91):

The interests that shaped John Fetzer's life can be seen as the seedbed for the questions that define the work of the Fetzer Institute: How can the secular and sacred elements of life be better integrated? How can the insights of science and the powers of technological innovation be utilized to explore the capacities of the mind and spirit? How can the wisdom and insight gained through inner exploration be used to better our individual and collective health? And how can the entrepreneurial spirit and financial resources gained from the American business sector be used in the service of creating a better world?

"Secular" and "sacred"! But even more interesting, "the entrepreneurial spirit and financial resources gained from the American business sector." What have that spirit and those resources got to do with love and, especially, forgiveness? Money can't buy you love. But forgiveness?

There's probably something deep going on here, and the Fetzer Institute seems to sponsor things that might provide genuinely helpful and transformative experiences for people, but what I'm reminded of is a scene in "Beyond our differences," that cloying documentary on religion for the World Economic Forum which Bill Moyers showed last December. A rickshaw driver in some Indian city looks across a busy road at motorized rickshaws and says they've put him out of business - he hasn't the resources to to buy one of those. But, he adds with a bright smile, he has to admit that it's better for passengers, who can get to their destinations more quickly now.

Is this the kind of forgiveness Fetzer wants more of? As capitalism spreads, many will inevitably feel aggrieved, and many others might feel they have done wrong. But this is the price of progress, and we mustn't let people stop progress because of it. So let's recognize it as a "critical" problem which must be understood not in "political, social, [or] economic" terms but in terms of its "psychological and spiritual roots." Systematic analyses would be misleading, it's an individual thing, the existential situation of the individual in this difficult world of pain whose halo is the wonder of forgiveness!

Instead of unrest or revolution or even reform... forgiveness on a global scale! (Maybe even the hermeneutics of suspicion might be forgiven.) Online ritual for letting go, anyone?

Sunday, March 15, 2009


in Central Park this afternoon.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Sometimes objects just demand to be photographed. Can there be pathetic fallacy with an unused extension cord?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Telling detail

Sometimes a little detail can make a familiar big story come to life again. Here's an example from The New York Times, which now rewards actual subscribers by letting us search its whole archive and download up to 100 articles a month.

The article, "Exiles' University Hails Its Charter," appeared April 25, 1941, as the New School's Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, popularly known as the University in Exile, celebrated receipt of a permanent charter and the right to award doctorates with a banquet for 500 guests at the Plaza Hotel. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter sent rousing words - the school "represents the trusteeship of civilization and embodies the solid hope for its maintenance and renewed conquest" - but the telling detail, the one that makes the value and significance of the University in Exile clear, is this:
We've all heard the lore of the "rescue" of Europe's "endangered intellectuals," but conjuring up in imagination these books - some of them copies of other books which perished in the bonfire on Bebelplatz in Berlin - makes the meaning of the school's "trusteeship of civilization" palpable. We now know, as they perhaps only sensed then, that The New School had saved not only books from burning, but their writers.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Just for me, or someone

Ever find a passage in something you're reading that names a thought you've had often but never knew what to do with? Happened to me today:

I am slightly unnerved in a strange city when I go out to buy the morning's newspaper. The vendor or dispenser has a paper waiting just for me. When I return home I ask at the kiosk if there was a spare unsold paper a couple of days ago. There never was. Someone else was there to buy mine.

Actually, it happens to me in familiar cities, too. Not being a creature of habit in every respect, I go through phases (for instance) of buying Japanese ingredients, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian... Every time I look for akamiso at Sunrise Mart or coriander chutney at Little India Stores or camembert at Fairway or dried dates at Manhattan Fruit Exchange or whatever moves my fancy at my local supermarkets, there it is on the shelf, though I come only a few times a year and irregularly. (Only at Trader Joe's, where I always look for the same things, do I often find someone else has beat me to what I'm looking for.)

There's a deeper point to this, and it's not that food markets actually throw away a lot of unsold food, though I'm sure that's true too. It has something to do with the incredibly complicated balancing act which is the modern economy, and helps account for my sense that it can unravel in no time flat (and is, of course). But it's something deeper than that, too, or broader - it has something to do with the rhythms of the larger reality in which we participate. Last summer I fumblingly called it the regular irregularity of the world. I'm not quite sure what it all is, but I'm hopeful Ian Hacking, in whose The Taming of Chance (p. 117) I found the aperçu above, will account for it. His study is about the discovery of statistical laws in the 19th century, and - believe it or not - thrillingly interesting.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Reading NYC in old pictures

In Religious Geography of New York today we started our historical overview. Our text is Eric Homberger's wonderful Historical Atlas of New York, but I started our discussion by handing out copies of two interesting early pictures of the city not in that book. Look at them yourself - click the pics for detail: what's so interesting about them?Let's start with the top one, which dates from 1672. What's wrong with it? Everything - including the name (the city had by that time been renamed New York, though it was a year from being briefly restored to New Amsterdamhood until the Brits traded Surinam to get it back). There are place names one might expect - a Chateau de Nassau along with other city fixtures like a Grand Rue, a Hopital, a Place de la Bourse and a commanding Maison de Ville - but the Québec perched atop the hill on the right should tell you something's very wrong. But what?

Look at the second picture. It's from 1700 and shows New York (still remembered by the old name as well) as it probably looked. What rings false here are the noble savages, and the palm trees. Palm trees? Hadn't the artist seen New York? Of course not. Like printmakers before him, he was working from descriptions, including sketches, from people who had - but it was his task and his specialty to fill them out credibly. Presumably none of his sources had bothered to note what kinds of trees covered the island of Manahato, or how the natives looked, so he inserted stock savages and palm trees he surmised might belong from similar places (or rather: images of other places). (You might still wonder why Mme Savage is holding so tight to that tree; perhaps she senses that her people will be plucked from the picture along with it.)

The arist behind the top picture was doing the same - but starting with even less. He didn't just fill in people and flora from other pictures - he imported, wholesale, a city: Lisbon. The printmaker Jollain's Parisian customers, eager to know what the new city looked like, wouldn't know any better!

My point was not that you have to take historical representations with a grain of salt. It was, rather, that artists - like historians, anthropologists, journalists - fill in the gaps of their sources to make their representations seem complete and credible. In some cases, like the top picture, they knew they were fabulating; in others, they were venturing their best guesses. A pretty standard point about reading historical materials (nay, any materials by human beings), but rather a neat way of making it, no?

Source of both pictures: Impressions of New York: Prints from the New-York Historical Society, ed. Marilyn Symmes (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

All boats

A question. When we get news like this from the Beeb, or the related stories about the faster-, no, much-faster-than-expected melting of glaciers, Artic and Antarctic ice sheets, etc., it's not that each study revises expectations already revised in light of the most recent-but-one study by some other body, is it? Or is it?

I ask this both because the turboshrinkage of the Arctic ice has been on my mind, and because something similar seems to be going on in the world economy. Does each new unexpected rise in unemployment or fall in exports (etc., etc.) report essentially the same downturn, as it were from a different angle, or is each the sign of a further, deeper downturn? I mean if something - water levels, savings rates, whatever - were constant for each month of year x at 100 and then, in year x + 1, were constant for each month at 80 although forecasts had been for a constant 90, wouldn't we be reading reports each month that levels were down by 10 more than expected over the year before, which might lead one to conclude, falsely, that the levels were progressively worsening? Or to put it another way, if ten people tell us their town is flooded, one after another, it's still possible it was just one town which inundated, no? And if ten different researchers tell us they had not thought the town would be flooded, one after another, it's still just one town... right?

Don't mean to be pollyanish here - clearly both climatic and economic problems affect all towns by now - just clear...

Monday, March 09, 2009


In Exploring Religious Ethics today, I had students write an in-class essay on a deceptively simple double question: What is karma and what's it got to do with ethics? In accordance with my feminist pedagogy, I tried it too. Turns out to be a dusey of a question.

But discussing it (thank goodness we still have 100-minute classes at Lang) allowed us to see and see through many common misunderstandings. Such as that karma is a like a point-system, a system you can and should learn to play. Of course you shouldn't do things known (however that is) to be fruitful in a bad karmic way, like causing suffering. Yet the solution to the problem of karma - all acts are ultimately fruitful of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) - is not to play the system skilfully, but not to play, or, more subtly, to play without playing. You need to understand karmic causality in order not to get ensnared in it. (Pic's unrelated but irresistible.)

That's still relatively easy (in theory - not in practice!). It gets even more complicated when you consider that what makes actions karmically fruitful in one way or the other isn't the act itself or its outcome, but the intention. In the lingo of contemporary western moral philosophy, this is just deontology. In its theistic forebears, deontology recalled that God knew the secrets of our hearts and rewarded or punished accordingly. But in Theravada Buddhism, there is no God to do this. Instead, there's something in the intentions themselves which triggers karmic consequences. To put it in crude and deliberately misleading terms, "mental" or "spiritual" causes generate sometimes "physical" or "material" effects. In the grand scheme of things these consequences seem to be of far greater moment than the mere "consequences" of our acts themselves (like if we actually succeed in carrying out the intended act, or if it has the intended result). And this is because objective, "physical" or "material" reality is an illusion, is in fact more like what we take the "mental" or "spiritual" to be.

Karma is a "law of cause and effect" which must, in some way, subsume "physical" laws of nature, but is really not a physical law. It accounts for how physical-seeming phenomena arise in the variously clouded consciousnesses of physical-seeming agents, but the causality in question is other than the "physical" causality of our familiar "laws of nature." (Forgive all the scare-quotes, but they may be necessary here.)

What's this got to do with ethics? Good question!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Chips off the old block

This afternoon I was treated to rousing performances of music for piano trio by Brahms, Bartok, Prokofiev and Mendelssohn, as well as an arrangement for violin and piano of the violin meditation from "Thaïs." It took place in the church hall of Old First Church (First Dutch Reformed Church) in Park Slope, just five minutes across Flatbush from here, so I got to see the inside of a venerable house of worship as well as enjoy a concert. And yet the main pleasure was something else again - for this was a concert for toddlers and their parents. The Tiffany windowed sanctuary of First Church was rendered a parking lot for strollers, and the musicians, the Sweet Treat Trio, were dressed up as candy - Mandy cotton candy on violin, Julie jellybean on 'cello, and something chocolate on piano (eventually they were joined by an enemy of candyland turned temporary ally, the pleasingly tomboyish Broccoli Rob, who played the flute). The concert took forty-five minutes, during which, we were told, chocolate cookies with rainbow sprinkles were baking in the kitchen just adjacent. The kids were remarkably sedate, possibly held in place by culture-starved parents' hunger for music that isn't explicitly edifying or about lollipops. (But the actions intended to help the medicine go down - waving your hands, making popcorn, kicking up your heels, etc. - were more enthusiastically performed by the older set, too.) Not sure what I make of the whole event - it isn't just bougie parents reproducing class privilege through the transmission of cultural capital, is it? At least for me it was also an interesting glimpse into the liberal bougie parenting mecca of Park Slope!

Saturday, March 07, 2009


Two nuggets from the Religious-Secular Divide conference, which in the end made me dejected for secularism. We learned that all religion gets Protestantized (subjectivized, privatized, reduced to sincerity of belief rather than action) in America - by law and sociology - and that nonbelief has become just another form of religion in this respect. (When someone asked a panel about Mainline Protestantism today, people froze as if asked about the UFOs.) What we're stuck with, if would seem from the conference, is the politically important but pretty shallow problems of pluralism and sincerity in a fundamentally disenchanted world.

"The American way to be secular is to be religious." - Winnifred Sullivan

"In the United States, freedom of religion is the freedom to act Protestant even when you're not." - Janet Jakobsen, quoted by Ann Pellegrini

Friday, March 06, 2009

Witnessing-free zones

Susan Harding, an anthropologist at UC Santa Cruz and author of the wonderful Book of Jerry Falwell is here as part of the Religious-Secular Divide conference. Her new project is on young anti-fundamentalist evangelicals, and her location in Santa Cruz has made Dan Kimball's Vintage Faith Church, a leading "emerging church," an object of study. (I assigned some of Kimball's work in my Cultures of the Religious Right course a year ago.) More than that. She told me that she's become a regular at The Abbey, a coffee shop for your hipsters and artists maintained by Vintage Church. What's interesting about it, besides the good coffee, is that's it's a space for the "secular religious" people Kimball appeals to. Besides having coffee blends called "nun's blend" and "monk's blend" (laced with several rich ironies for postmodern evangelical Protestants) it's an entirely secular place, the "archetypal bourgeois space."

But as she told me about it, the secularist Harding seems to get a particular thrill from it's being a "witnessing-free zone." You can be reading Nietzsche but the person at the next table (perhaps reading the Bible) won't witness to you, even though they know you're going to hell. "Such self-restraint!" she said, not without admiration.

I was impressed too, since this "witnessing-free zone" clearly functions as a form of witness after all. How ingenious, how postmodern. Susan Harding may or may not be going to hell later, but for now she's going to The Abbey. Is "such self-restraint!" the postmodern update of "see how these Christians love each other"?

"Witnessing-free zone" is a suggestive term (coming from Harding, who delights in polysemy and revoicing, I don't know it isn't also a term Kimball uses) and helped me name something I experienced on Wednesday at a forum at the New York Times Building sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. Kick-off for their yearlong "Darwin 200" series, it was a discussion on "Evolution and the Ethical Brain," featuring three important writers on the subject - Michael Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, and Steven Quartz - and moderated by Times columnist David Brooks. All four are, so far as you can tell, entirely naturalistic in their under- standing of things.

The Templeton Foundation isn't into naturalism, at least not exclusively. Although it's refined its image in recent years to deemphasize the language of the spiritual (still part of the Templeton Prize description), it's definitely about "The Big Questions" which religions explore, and has been using its considerable resources to generate visible dialogue between the natural sciences and religion. It even sponsors seminars for scientists and others called the "Humble Approach Initiative." This panel had not even a whiff of humility about it, but this struck me in a way comparable to the way The Abbey struck Susan Harding. Providing a platform for variously naturalist accounts of human nature, entirely uncontested... What self-restraint!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Secularism, secularism everywhere

After last semester, I'm over secularism, but the rest of the world just seems to be getting started. I got to moderate one of the panels at a big conference on secularism which started today, and the hall was packed. The papers were all over the place, and more interesting than I expected. Religious voices are not part of this conference, but three of my four speakers (actually one of them is religious, I think) argued for a kind of openness to something important beyond the worldview of secularism: in a tragic ambiguity in experience only ritual lets us accept (Adam Seligman), in a politically radical spirituality which is and should remain undefinable (Peter Van Der Veer), and in a pluralism of immanent understandings which embrace time as becoming without resentment (William Connolly). The fourth would have nothing of it: his argument (it was Daniel Dennett) was that "We are made of trillions of mindless robots," and the rest is memes. What any of this had to do with the panel theme, "Religious selves, secular selves," I really don't know, but we had a good time. Hasn't changed my mind on secularism as a poorly formed question, though.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Books galore

A student in one of the Religious Geography of New York class gave a presentation today on bookshops in our area. The computer died before he was able to show this nifty map he made.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Not 9 but 18

Well, my week-long culture binge hit some bumps along the way, but ended in heaven. One bump you already know about, the "Vita Nova" which the Times reviewer described as a rare combination of banal and pretentious. On Sunday I sat stonily through some old repertory piees by Paul Taylor and wondered if anyone would bother coming if the dancers were fully attired. And last night I saw the premiere of the Met's new "Sonnambula," beautifully sung but in a post-modern production by Mary Zimmerman which the audience heartily booed.

But then there was tonight's "New Music, New City, New Hall," a performance by three generations of New York new music ensembles as part of the opening festival of the new Alice Tully. Inspiredly performing in reverse chronological order, we heard Alarm Will Sound, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and then Steve Reich & Musicians (for his iconic 1974 "Music for 18 Musicians"). By the luck of the draw, my friend D and I were in the first row, which, while rendering Alice Tully's gorgeous new accoustics moot, meant that we were practically in the musicians' laps. "Music for 18" is already mesmerizing in recordings, but live it was a vision of heaven: twenty musicians (the marimbists needed a periodic change of the guard) totally in tune with each other for nearly an hour, passing phrases and pulses back and forth and helping each other out - sometimes lost in concentration, often with expressions of joy or even rapture. I imagine I was looking pretty blissed out myself.

Monday, March 02, 2009

First snow day in five years for the New York City schools! We got the day off, too, a mercy.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


As Victoria faces another day of extreme fire danger and a blizzard bringing as much as a foot of snow bears down on us in New York (after coating Alabama and Georgia!), I've been trying to finish proposals for conferences at the end of the year: the Parliament of the World's Religions (as part of whose website you have to pick from the options at left - is "Interfaith" now a "Religious Tradition"?), and the American Academy of Religion. PWR is done; AAR remains - wish me luck. Both proposals are on the religion of the future, hard enough not to sound silly on when you're not preoccupied with the meteorological future. May all be safe.