Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fall's a'comin'!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The height of prosumption?

Learned a new word today: prosumer. Apparently it's a term used in various places for a consumer who contributes something productive through her/his consumption patterns or choices. Business types like prosumers as a taste-defining market sector, but the person who used the term today was a Marxist who was describing the progressive elimination of paid work in our "jackpot economy," where everyone puts in many unpaid hours for a chance to be the winner of the competitive game of capitalist success. The larger point was that economists of all stripes see value as no longer the result only of wage labor and (or vs.) capital. Instead, much - perhaps most - of the value of commodities is generated in the "social economy," in the ways we - prosumers all - provide free labor in researching products, teaching ourselves how to use them, telling others about them and providing endless hours' worth of information for the data miners who squeeze marketing knowledge from social networking sites.

But if this labor costs enterprises nothing, what will happen to wage labor? What will happen to the very concepts of work, of value? Is the open-source world of free software, collectively-written novels and endless Facebooking and tweeting the augur of a new economy, more collective and collaborative, or the superstructure to a change in the base which will impoverish all but a few? These questions were raised at a panel discussion which was a teaser for a conference one of my colleague has organized for November on the phenomenon of "digital labor." (I'll be moderating a panel, adding my free labor without any prosumptive qualifications!)

(The cartoon's from the most recent New Yorker.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Lay of the land

Yesterday in church I gave a "Lay Stewardship Homily" - the first of three homilies given during stewardship season. People generally take them as an occasion for an extended self-introduction. I did less, and a bit more. Some excerpts:

You might think standing before you would come easy to me, since I’m a professor – a professor of religious studies, no less. It doesn’t, for just those reasons.

As a professor, I’m a sort of member of clergy at my college. As a director of programs, I suppose I’m even some kind of bishop. I come here, to Holy Apostles, to step out of that. I come here not to teach. Not to be an expert, an authority, not to be in charge. I come to be part of the community of learners, a community where you can say you don’t know something and be taken at your word, that there are things you are struggling to make sense of and be believed.

It feels even weirder for me to be up here — it feels downright dangerous! — because I’m a professor of religious studies: I talk about religion all the time, analyzing it from historical, sociological, psychological, ethical and even aesthetic viewpoints. But speaking as a religious person is hard. In my classes I give voice to all sorts of religious types and experiences, as well as to skeptics and atheists, part of a pedagogy which confronts every party line – believing or unbelieving – with “inconvenient facts,” and tries to make every view confront the humanity of those who don’t share it. As a result, even when speaking for myself I feel I’m speaking as some kind of person; even when speaking as an insider, I’m speaking from the outside, or to it. ...

Here at Holy Apostles I’ve experienced the truth of many things I’ve studied and taught: the satisfactions of community, the power of liturgy and of collective prayer, and even of singing – of singing one’s part in harmony! (When I attended an Anglican church in Australia a few years ago, I bridled at the choir’s monopoly of harmony – even for hymns, the rest of us got only the melody line.) Yet it’s only when the congregation sings in harmony some of the time that you can fully hear the beauty of its singing in unison at others, as – especially – when we sing:

We who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread.

Now this is a stewardship homily, and I’m supposed to remind you of all the ways you can mix your time, talent and treasure with this place. When I had only been here a few weeks – I arrived in the Fall of 2002 – Bill Greenlaw took me out to lunch. How did I want to serve? Surely I wanted to teach here, too? Absolutely not, I said, I come here to be a lay person, something I don’t fully know how to be. But of course, as my still Catholic self needed reminding, lay people can do, and do do, a lot in an Episcopal church. We reap the harvest of many people’s talents, lay and ordained, and are the richer for it – richer and, I’ve learned here, we hear more of what God has to say to us. When we preach inclusion we mean it, because our life together lets us experience its gifts all the time.)

What I’ve found myself doing here is ushering, lectoring and pledging. Each is meaningful in a different way. I won’t say much about ushering; it turns out it’s rather like being a professor of religious studies ... Let me try to say something instead about being a lector, something which – perhaps surprisingly - is entirely different from being a professor.

I had no idea how different lectoring would be until I tried it. Not to be grandiose about it, but it filled me with fear and trembling (especially when I got to read the passage in Philippians where those words appear, "fear and trembling"!). In being a lector you have a totally different relationship to the text than you do as a teacher—even if you’re a teacher who sometimes takes people through passages from the Bible, or through Biblically formed texts like, say, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. As a lector you don’t get to choose the piece of scripture you’re reading. You don’t introduce or contextualize it, you don’t paraphrase, you don’t interpret it. Sure, in reading it aloud you are interpreting it. But I found as I prepared that I was trying to do something different: to let the text speak, to let it say more things than I knew were in it. (We all know that scripture says different things to different people, and even to the same person at different times.) As a lector I try to make the text significant, relevant, available; the purpose isn’t to commend my interpretation of it. (Often—I can say this here!—I don’t know what I’m reading. The more times I read it, and read it aloud, the less I understand. And I admit I’ve had a hard time with some of the texts I’ve been given, like the insistence that not one Egyptian survived the closing of the Red Sea over Pharoah’s army, not one.) But even then, I’m trying to be there for the reading, to give it voice, make it available. It’s a humbling, but also exciting experience.

The last thing I do is pledge. Why I pledge is related to this sense of the privilege I find in lectoring, the privilege of making something available whose meanings I can’t all master, and perhaps don’t have to. Supporting this church is satisfying in a similar way. Let me try to explain by way of a digression. As some of you may know, I’ve created a class at school called “Religious Geography of New York.” In it students and I consider theories of religion and space, which generally assert that the sacred is and must be something apart, a refuge or respite – and then confront these theories with the robust and amazingly mobile religious life of godless Gotham. What was a church yesterday is a temple today, while its congregation has moved uptown, or dispersed to the suburbs, or taken over a movie theater. (Episcopalians don’t move as quickly…) But this tumble of religious communities and spaces doesn’t undermine the religious, the way theorists of religion and small-town conservatives think it must. Rather, it gives religion new form and force and suppleness. In the back of my mind as I sing the praises of urban religion is always this space: this church, this soup kitchen, this shul, this performance space … this church. Its multiple lives deepen its significance for me. I love that it can mean more to more people than I am capable of understanding. ...

Holy Apostles is a very special place, where special and important things happen. I’m not master of all of them, nor need I be. Indeed, I come here to cultivate the version of myself that lives without mastery, in searching and wonder and community and service. I’m grateful to all of you for what you give to help this place be all the things it is, and for helping it maintain the openness which assures it will be even more things in the future.

Not sure very many people got all I was trying to say (such as the implied parallel between the Episcopal Church's inclusiveness and singing in harmony), but some did. And I did - it was good to be forced to try to put these things into words.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Open and shut case

Oh, the wonders of the modern world! I'm teaching a section of Theorizing Religion on the World's Congress of Religions of 1893, and tried - on a whim - to see if the proceedings were available for sale. Indeed! $15 + pph later, the impressive tome below was mine, with the text of every speech delivered, and pictures of each speaker. (Above are speakers from South Asia - historians now see the contributions of Vivekananda and Dharmapala as the Congress' most influential.) More, there are pictures illustrating the world of religions of the time, old and new. But, unsurprisingly, the Congress was less pluralistic than it seemed, or pluralistic only as a step on the way to asserting Protestant superiority, as the inclusion of odd pictures like the Buddhist and Aztec Idols below suggests. In a way the Congress volume's design makes this clear. The cover seems open to East as well as West: Columbia is garlanded with a ribbon which says Buddhism Shintoism Brahmanism on one side, Judaism Christianity Mohammedanism on the other. But after you've finished the book and put it on your shelf, the spine tells a different story: tablets of the Law on clouds and a cross rise above a barely visible star and crescent, and the religions of Asia have vanished entirely! Case closed, I guess!

Royal treatment

In the window of a tiny coffee shop near school, artist Yumiko Matsui has produced a model of the coffee shop and the primary school around the corner, entirely out of paper! Every detail is there, from the paper coffee bags above the shop's espresso machine to the school's bricks, seal, security camera. すごい!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

20,000 leagues under Houston Street

Had my camera along the other day when I went to Film Forum, and took some pics of some of my favorite subway art: Deborah Brown's "Platform Diving," 1994.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ethical ducks

Had tea this afternoon with some colleagues - an anthropologist, a philosopher and a political scientist - interested in animals, and the way our interactions with animals reflect and also perhaps shape the way we interact with each other. An interesting topic which came up was the way the word "ethical" is used in commending certain of these relationships.

Consider "ethical foie gras." As municipalities and even a state or two have banned foie gras because of the way it's made - tubes are thrust down the throats of ducks and they're force fed in such a way as to develop a diseased liver ten times the usual size, before being "harvested" - someone in Spain discovered a way to get foie gras "ethically." Noting that migrating ducks and geese gorge themselves in the period before migration, he laid out heaps of the tasty but disease-inducing food. Some ducks then freely partook. When the ducks with the enlarged livers were harvested, their pâté won prizes. Indeed, first prize, in a French national competition. Sacrébleu! Should not this kinder, gentler version of the 5000-year-old specialty (the ancient Egyptians were already stuffing food down ducks' throats, I learned) be permitted? (The French in any case prohibited the Spaniard from calling his product foie gras, as the mode of manufacture is apparently part of its definition as part of France's living patrimony!)

My colleague's interest in this: Apparently this is thought to be "ethical" not because the birds don't suffer degrading conditions (on analogy with free range poultry), but because the ducks "freely" eat of the gras-inducing food - and only those ducks who do are harvested. But are ducks free, can they choose? Can they be said to have chosen their own deaths? If so (lots of big ifs), aren't there disturbing analogs in human life - too obvious to mention in the land of obesity? But aren't these human analogs perhaps what makes this extension of the word "ethical" across species lines possible in the first place?

Meanwhile, the anthropologist told about his brother, who engages in "ethical hunting": he eats what he shoots, and shoots only what he can eat. But apparently it goes farther than that; these ethical hunters spread the blood of their kill over their faces, in some kind of gesture of acknowledgment or relation, probably taken from the practices of some hunting tribes of old.

It does seem interesting to see how words like "ethical" are used beyond human relations (not just how they might be used, but how they already are being used) and to see what lends these uses their plausibility. (Can there really be "ethical" ways of being a predator, though? I mean, for omnivorous species like us, not for those who can't choose to be vegetarian.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Holiday weekend

In Theorizing Religion today, students described their experiences attending a religious festival: I'd given them four options to research and visit, all of which happened to fall this past weekend: the start of Sharad Navaratri (Hindu), Eid-al-Fitr (Muslim), Rosh Hashanah (Jewish), and the feast of San Gennaro (Catholic). Finding a place to witness one of these festivals was part of the assignment, as was writing an account of what they found and what they made of it.

What they came up with is wonderful! A Polish Catholic girl, unable to attend other festivals because of her work schedule, is invited to celebrate a festive Rosh Hashanah dinner with the family of a Russian Jewish co-worker, though she's warned "we're not very religious anymore." Two boys attend a Hindu community celebration in a tiny room; as some pujatis convulse on the floor, one student is unnerved, and the other is surprised to find a "pure form" of the "spirit" he now thinks animates all religion. Many students go to the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy and are disgusted or discouraged by its commercialism; people they ask about the religious significance of it know little, but one student makes it past the food vendors and freak shows to the Church of the Most Precious Blood, where he finds the painted plaster statue of the saint fluttering with taped-on dollar bills; another student discerns a religious love animating even the tackiest street events. A girl who interns for an organization helping South Asians is told about Eids and Navaratris past by people she meets, and then is treated to dinner at a Pakistani place by a taxi driver - he has neither time nor family to celebrate Eid himself, so offering it to her is his Eid celebration.

These are just some of what students found - several managed to visit two festivals! My intention in assigning these visits (besides making up for the class time missed because of my trip to Berlin!) was to get students out of the classroom, into the city, to confront major religious traditions in their sometimes appealing, sometimes vulgar festival garb. A "reality check" for the theories we're discussing in class - do they really apply to anything but academic constructions of religion? I also wanted them to feel the complex energies of the festivities and wonder if they were really "religious," and to start to think about festival "higher time" and the power of community celebration, topics we'll take up in a few weeks. Seems to have worked!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Going Dutch

My friend P told me this afternoon about a remarkable experiment being conducted in some cities in Holland. All traffic signs, from stop signs to crosswalks, have been removed - pedestrians, cyclists and motorists have to share the roads without the help even of kerbs! And guess what? They do - accidents are down!

This approach was pioneered by a Hans Monderman (a Ben Hamilton-Baillie gave it the name "Shared Space"), and is apparently being tried in seven countries. An EU project explains that Shared Space is successful because the perception of risk may be a means or even a prerequisite for increasing objective safety. Because when a situation feels unsafe, people are more alert and there are fewer accidents. I'd also want to add that you're less likely to bump into someone when you're aware that s/he is a someone - Shared Space has you looking out for other people, not signs and rights of way.

All this is at once astonishing and unsurprising, and very suggestive. What other forms of spontaneous attunement and coordination are being obscured or even dulled by well-intentioned efforts to maintain order and safety?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gimme! Thanks! Oops! Wow! Pardon?

You won't be surprised to learn that I thought Zev Chafets' article "Is There A Right Way To Pray?" in the New York Times Magazine a piece of fluff. (The accompanying picture, complete with candles and, at lower right, two squirrels, sets the tone.) Perhaps it makes some sense to send a reporter who is bemused by religion - rather than practicing or deploring it - to report on the state of prayer in America, but a reporter who reports his bemused reactions to everything? One needn't and probably shouldn't be pious about religious topics to write about them, but an authorial voice such as Chafets' pretty much prevents the reader from learning anything.

By way of "research," Chafets cited a Pew study reporting 75% of respondents pray weekly but only half as many attend worship somewhere, then talked to a few people - mostly in New York - who lead prayer, offer spiritual direction, lead retreats, etc. Steven Waldman, the editor in chief of BeliefNet, predictably reported that prayer has become its own religion in this society. People pick and choose. They want to be their own spiritual contractors. (45) (Recall that BeliefNet's "only agenda is to help you meet your spiritual needs.") But how about talking to even one of these DIY spiritual contractors? Have any changed religious denomination because of this? (Chafets seems unaware of recent discussion of religious mobility and pluralism in America, an obvious context for the topic at hand.) The prayer teachers he interviewed advise all manner of tricks, but what do the pray-ers on the ground do? Some eclectic pray-ers I know are quite thoughtful about what they do, and wouldn't be as charmed as Chafets by Rabbi Marc Gellman's quip that when you come down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow! (46) These are all about me and my feelings - is that what prayer's all about? (Even so, only the first and last make even superficial sense to Chafets.) Gellman also recommends his congregants pray in Hebrew, even if they don't understand it - why not follow that up? Could it be that prayer sometimes takes people beyond their own spiritual needs, closer to the needs of others, and to other realities which everyday language cannot compass? Chafets ends his article with a description of a Pentecostal service in West Virginia, where children testified to him, and reflects: I realized that I was probably never going to become a praying man. But if, by some miracle, I ever do, I hope my prayers will be like the prayers of the kids ... Straight-up Gimme! on behalf of people who really need the help. How nice of him. But since he's started praying, why not wipe the smirk off his face and continue?

Saturday, September 19, 2009


I've another film to recommend, Kore-eda Hirokazu's "Still Walking." It has been playing in NY for a few weeks, and might well play elsewhere, too, as Kore-eda has established himself as one of Japan's most interesting contemporary film makers - and perhaps the successor to Ozu. The sublimely haunting "Maborosi" (1995) is available on Netflix, as are the wonderful fable "After Life" (1999) and the devastating "Nobody Knows" (2005), the true story of four young children who lived on their own in a flat in Tokyo when their mother abandoned them, nobody in the supposedly so attentive neighborhood noticing. Kore-eda is able to capture the feel of everyday life, its textures, its islands of unspectacular beauty, its comforts, in a way which doesn't romanticize them. Life remains difficult: the comforts are real, but the pain is real, too. His abiding theme is death, and the gaps the dead leave in the lives of the living. The gentle harmonies of the everyday are shown to be powerful bulwarks, sustaining people as they live on without those they can't live without. (I'm not sure how to state the paradox here.) The problems are too deep to be "resolved" by plot. "Still walking" (in Japanese "Aruitemo aruitemo," words from a song which appears in an unexpected way two-thirds of the way into the film, describing walking and walking with the one you love, rocking like a boat) is a delight to watch, full of beauty, with remarkable performances by the actors, especially as they interact, and especially the children. A family gathers on the anniversary of the death of the eldest son, whose passing (he died saving a child from drowning) leaves the family broken in a way it can't ever fix. They live on - they are still walking - but the unanswerable questions of how he would have lived on, and how he would have affected the others' lives, raise in their turn unanswerable questions about the lives each of the survivors' lives, a kind of barely visible question-mark over every life choice, every relationship. In the end, this film is somewhat bitterer in its reflections on the legacies of the dead among the living than some of its predecessors, but no less true. True of what? Not just the way the loss of a particular person in a particular family lives on. Kore-eda is as ambitious a film-maker in one register as he is restrained in another, and as I discussed the film with my friend D after watching it, every detail and apparently casual reference started to seem like it bore a message. I'm not sure finally what all these additional messages are about - the burden of the past, of what might have been, the present moment... might have to go see it again!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fall's coming here, too!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Berlin pics

Some scenes from four full days in Berlin. The Schaubühne am Lehninerplatz, where I saw a new production of Friedrich Hebbel's 1861 "Nibelungen." A nearly rusticated philosopher at the State Library. "Die Stelen," as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is known. A horse chestnut. Religion section
at Dussman - somehow Atheismus has come between Glaube and Benedikt XVI. Witty trash receptacle in a nation of trash-separators. Manhole cover of the Berlin skyline. Reflection of our tour boat in one of the grand new government buildings on the Spree. (Those joggers kept pace with us for a long time.)
The Four Evangelists carved by the astonishing Tilman Riemenschneider in the recently reopened Bodemuseum. Advertisement for a leftist party, protesting the privatization which led to the collapse of the S-Bahn system. The silent monument to the book burnings at the Bebelplatz - an empty library beneath the square; look carefully and you'll see the bare white shelves. The squat hulk of the Berliner Dom, with the DDR-era TV tower behind it (left), and the spires of the brick gothic church of St. Nikolai (right). And finally: garden gnomes, Berlin style. They're saying, "Come back soon" in their way, I'm sure!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Smuggler's route

So, after two subways, a bus, three planes, a monorail, a train and one last subway, and having traversed three countries, an ocean and two states, I'm home! I wouldn't recommend the Paris-Montréal-Newark route from Berlin to New York, except for two things. (1) The 747 across the Atlantic is empty (I got a row to myself, upstairs!) and Air France food is actually good. (2) It's the perfect way to bring contraband into the country, as you go through US customs in Montréal without your checked luggage. I'm not actually sure that bread is among forbidden foods, but I didn't want to find out by asking. Check out my hoard!(You can get almost everything in New York, but not good solid German rye bread.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


My mother asked A, the cousin I'm staying with in Berlin, to recommend some recent German books I could bring home for her. After finding that a 1000-pager on life in the DDR was not yet available in paperback, A recommended books by a Feridun Zaimoglu and a Wladimir Kaminer - Turkish and Russian names. I picked up both books at the palatial Dussman on Friedrichstrasse and found these writers have indeed both been praised as major contributions to contemporary German literature. Isn't it wonderful? I started reading the comic Kaminer, and had to laugh out loud - something that only happens to me with Bill Bryson (and less often with David Sedaris). This book is in fact a bit Bryson-like, a travelogue of true, hidden Germany. Who better to reveal it to us, German-Americans abroad, than a Russian theater artist who came to Berlin just a few years ago and discovered a new life as a writer in German? Who else would have been at a reading in Chemnitz, once known as Karl-Marx-Stadt (although Marx never set foot there), noticed that there was a garden gnome conference on, and realized that the great head of Marx still at the city's center (less determined and scary-looking than the Soviet versions) was really like the head of a garden gnome?!


Berlin, incidentally, is in the middle of a public transportation nightmare. At the beginning of the summer, a routine inspection of S-Bahn wheels discovered that the entire fleet needed repair. (Only Berlin and Hamburg have this particular system so replacement cars or parts can't simply be ordered - besides, there's no money: the problem arose from cost-cutting, the savings given to the Deutsche Bahn and apparently not recoverable.) The system's been running at reduced capacity all summer. Then, just days before, I arrived, problems were found with the brakes, too! It will take four years to fix the whole fleet, and in the meantime, for the foreseeable future, only 25% of train cars are usable. Most S-Bahn lines are running on dramatically reduced schedules (im 20-Minutentakt), and other lines - greyed out in the map above - aren't running at all. How long will this continue? Nobody knows.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Stormy weather

Saw a remarkable and very important film today, one to keep an eye out for. It just opened this week in Germany, and may not open across the seas for a long time, but here's hoping. The film, by Hans- Christian Schmid, is called "Sturm," and tells the story of Hannah Maynard, a lawyer working for the International Criminal Court for Yugoslavia near the end of its allotted time; politicians want the court to finish its business, but justice takes time. Higher-ups see bigger pictures, but lawyers, at least sometimes, hear the voices of individuals. I don't want to say much more, but will say that every moment of this film rings true, in pain, complexity and psychological insight. Every performance, especially leads Kerry Fox and Anamaria Marinca, is stellar. Something happens when Hannah meets a young Bosnian refugee in Berlin named Mira Arendt. Yes, something like a Hannah Arendt emerges, but in so subtle and believable a way it took me hours of discussing the film to even begin to figure it out.
Greetings from Berlin, where I've just played the part of the relation from faraway New York at a reunion of descendants of my mother's maternal grandparents. I've only been to two of these biennial reunions before, but it's nice to feel part of an extended family! I think I might try to come to the next one, too, though then it would cost me real money, not just frequent flier miles...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Rewriting history

Had a grand time rewriting history this evening! I've been in charge of a project to make more people (students especially) aware of the history of The New School, in this its ninetieth year, and this was the time for me to officially unveil the online reader we've put together, and to suggest that and why this history is worth getting to know. (Above are six "splash" images from the reader website, running the gamut from social science publications and Hannah Arendt through student protests and course catalogs to dance and the particular niche The New School has long played in New York culture.) The finale of my presentation were the Benton murals, which you've heard me rhapsodize about before. But the way I got there was kind of neat, if I say so myself.

Before we began, I played a video of a dance choreographed by Doris Humphrey, our founding modern dancer, and the amazing video above (found on youtube, of course) of music by Henry Cowell, one of the composers who made The New School a center for American contemporary music in the 1920s and 1930s. It's as fun - or as daunting - to watch as to listen to!

The main argument came in three "questions" I posed to the received view - one which our first year students in fact received in an orientation speech just a few weeks ago. The received view is that we were founded by two historians who resigned from Columbia in protest at restrictions on academic freedom during WW1, Charles Beard and James Harvey Robinson; the philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey; and the economist and cultural critic Thorstein Veblen. Grand founding figures and inspiring. Our orientation speaker actually called them "founding fathers," and contrasted them with the founding fathers of older and more established universities (Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia). I wonder if that's is or even should be our aspirational peer group, but my first question was: "fathers?"

In fact, it wasn't just men who set up The New School, so I replaced "founding fathers" with "founders" and inserted a picture of Emily James Putnam, who was indeed one of the founders, and among the most radical. The first woman in the US to get a PhD in classics, she had been dean at Barnard before joining the New School experiment, and it was she who insisted on some of the most innovative aspects of the structure of the new institution (like the absence of tenured positions, or an endowment); she signed her suggestions "your anarchist"! But she's just one of many women who supported, taught at and studied at The New School at a time when there were few vehicles for educated women outside of women's colleges. Remember that this was 1919, the year women first gained the vote. (And some day I'll tell you abut Clara Mayer, the forgotten woman who ran The New School for forty years.)

My next question was to "university" - was it really a new improved university the founders were after? They offered something much more radical. Not a place where the future leaders of society were licensed after a few years' discipline, but a place where anyone wishing to learn more could and keep coming. Not to get a degree, not as a transition from youth to adulthood, but as long as there were things they wanted and needed to learn about. The true peers of The New School, if it has any, are other cultural and educational experiments in the same vein, from the (socialist) Rand School of Social Science, the Bureau of Social Research (later a part of the Columbia School of Social Work), the LSE in London and the Institut für Sozialwissenschaft in Frankfurt. In particular, the hopes of the school, both in terms of audience and impact, are better understood by seeing it in the context of other institutions created by progressives steeped in the social sciences in turn of the century New York than by seeing it as a species of the genus university.

My final question had to do with "social science." The original proposal (1918) was for an "Independent School of Social Science for Men and Women," but what they founded was called The New School for Social Research. Why "social research"? What does - what did - that even mean? I've asked a few historians and nobody quite knows, but all think it an important question. My suggestion was that "social research" meant something like what we now describe as "engaged scholarship." The social sciences were important to it, but as part of a broader attempt to bring the methods of modern scientific inquiry to the humanities, which - Beard and Robinson had written - were still "medieval" in character. But it was broader even than this suggests. Psychology and sociology and anthropology and economics had to be pursued. But the modern arts, too, were forms of social research - explorations of the conditions, challenges and significance of modern forms of living. It was not an accident or a distraction, and certainly not an embarrassment, that The New School within three years of its founding became a center for the study and practice of the arts.

And so I got to end with the New School murals - Benton of course, but also José Clemente Orozco, whose murals "A Call for Revolution and Universal Brotherhood" we still have. Powerful on their own (yes, that's Lenin, and next to him Uncle Joe), but even more stimulating when juxtaposed with the murals Benton painted at the same time for The New School's first permanent building, in Greenwich Village in 1930 - very different in aesthetics and theme. In all this I hope to have given students a sense of the excitement with which the histories and ideals of the school fill me, and what's sometimes called a "usable past." Or better, multiple usable pasts, materials for a "choice of inheritance." We are a university now, we give degrees, and mainly to students transitioning to careers (or at least lives as self-supporting grown-ups), but the flame kindled by folks like Putnam, "your anarchist," burns on. I hope our New School history project feeds the flame!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


A big elegant cliff arch at Torrey Pines (above) fell a few days ago. Wow.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Tangled web

One of the more interesting aspects of contemporary evangelical culture is the creation of a parallel world, a sort of demimonde, of Christian pop culture. Competing with godless secular culture, it began in the 1970s, achieved some genuine heights with CCM (contemporary Christian music), and continues apace with Christian horror novels, video games, rock festivals, ironic teeshirts, etc. I stumbled on an early example today, a fully licensed Christian parallel Archie comic from 1975. (You can download the whole volume here.) A team of cynical television reporters comes to Riverdale High looking for stories of deviancy and strife, but finds none (except Archie's accident-proneness, yuk yuk). Instead they find kids saying grace in the cafeteria, a saved ex-hippie, and everyone - even the principal - happy clappy in the Bible Club. I'm doubtful that this movement has created a securely Bible-centered counterculture. But recent events (like hysterical Texas parents objecting to President Obama's exhorting their children to work hard in school) confirm they're following Archie's example in tangling up the media.

Incidentally, I just discovered on looking back on a related post that Godtube, the Christian alternative to youtube, is now called - can you believe it! -

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Catch it

Just finished Tim Winton's new novel, Breath. It won the Miles Franklin Award, and you can see why. Breath tells the story of two teenagers in Western Australia in the 1970s who test their limits by (among other things) surfing ever more dangerous waves. The ending was darker - the characters more damaged by what happens to them - than I wanted, but it rings true throughout. Indeed, it sings: his writing is of an almost magical precision and power (even though there's no magical realism in this novel, as in the lovely Cloudstreet).

In particulat, his writing about water is stunning. I felt I was in the water as I read it, feeling its power. I felt swells lift me, shadows of reefs open under me, waves roll by overhead as I watched them from below. I felt the gut-fear when a wave is about to cream you. (That these were my own body memories being kindled is confirmed by the fact that specific surfing experience I haven't had didn't move me in the same way, though I took them on faith.) But Winton's novel is so perfectly paced that I felt the waves even when they weren't being described. I could hear the distant booming of surf which the boys hear from their beds at night as storms approach. Indeed, I found I was aware of the surf pounding away at the outer limits of my own sensorium even during a few days when I wasn't reading the novel. Just like the protagonists I was thrilled and haunted by the surf and all it connotes of a wider, mysterious, dangerous world. (Strangely I gave my post on John Bullitt's recordings of the sounds of the earth, including the sound of surf, the title of a Tim Winton novel, albeit one I haven't yet read.)

Maybe I was just unhappy with its ending because Winton spends less time at the end with the sea. The narrator's life has gone off the rails because of the continuing repercussions of extreme experiences when he was fifteen but has returned to a kind of equilibrium, though not the kind of harmony I thought he was heading toward. Surfing's still part of his life, but it doesn't sustain him. (Many days the sea down there is flat.) That's his point, I suppose. Harmony isn't in the cards for some - perhaps most - of us, or not in the ways and places we hope for. Even our own breathing remains an obscure mystery, an effortless effort whose wonder (like time in Augustine's Confessions) we get only when we don't have to try to understand it. Some programmatic lines:

It's funny, but you never really think much about breathing. Until it's all you ever think about. ... as a youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath upon breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine, and that the human will to control is as much about asserting power over your own body as exercising it on others. (42-43)

I'm not sure I ever felt that powerlessness, which may be why I never sought the experiences of power Winton's characters seek. (Or maybe I experienced it as mediated by culture, but that would be a whole separate discussion.) Anyway, it's interesting that the narrator's playing a didgeridoo as he reflects on the "enigma of respiration," so there is a release, a harmony of some kind after all: the wind comes through me in circles, like a memory, one breath, without pause, hot and long. (42)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Invisible hands

The Brooklyn Museum is showing an exhibition of the work of Yinka Shonibare, a gifted young Nigerian-British artist with one idea. He complicates images of 18th and 19th century European life by creating scenes with (headless) mannequins in period costumes - but the fabrics are all the colorful Dutch wax prints which colonialists, learning from Indonesian batik, printed in Europe (probably on cotton from India) and exported to Africa, whose emblem they have now become. (Above: "The Age of Enlightenment - Adam Smith," 2008.) The effect is initially jarring, often beautiful, and shimmers with a sort of profundity - the whole colonial economy of the modern world seems on unwitting display: the emperor's new clothes are colonial! But after a while it can seem a bit repetitive, even formulaic.Happily, Shonibare created a special installation for this show which demonstrates the wit and power of his approach in all its freshness; his work really needs to be taking on something familiar and local, and then it's electric! He placed figures of children (still headless) in some of the period rooms in the Brooklyn Museum's standing collection. Looking for them - like a game of hide and seek - energized and troubled displays which would otherwise have seemed of merely antiquarian interest. Here are three: a girl under the table in the dining room from Cane Acres Plantation in Summerville, South Carolina, c. 1806; a child skipping rope in the "Moorish Room" designed for a New York townhouse in 1878; and a boy playing with a marionnette soldier in a "Civil War Dressing Room," a composite display whose fireplace hails from Andrew Johnson's White House in Washington, DC. The innocent joy of the children, their games, and their racial opacity really bring the post-colonial critique of western modernity home, heartbreakingly.