Monday, November 30, 2009

Old Europe

Interesting article in the Science Times about one of the oldest civilizations in the world - what's new is that enough has been found to categorize it as a civilization - in the Balkans. It's referred to as Old Europe. The architectural model above (some of their structures did indeed have two stories) dates from 4600-3900 BCE, the pot below (with patterns remarkably like those of Pueblo pots!) from 3700-3500 BCE.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pulling out all the stops

I suppose I shouldn't say that the best film I've seen in a while is Roland Emmerich's "2012" but it really was a blast. Too long by half, and repetitive (first a car races away from streets cracking and buckling from earthquake, then it's a trailer, then it's a small plane, then it's a really big plane...), and the hammiest of dialogue.

But who goes to a big-budget disaster film for the dialogue? You go for the special effects! 1000 people worked on the computer-generated cataclysms here, and it shows. Los Angeles has never been chopped, diced, vigorously shaken and then poured into the Pacific quite as vividly. (I first saw the poster above as a billboard-sized cardboard sign at a cinema in California, where you could see the individual cars and people...) And then onward, past toppling monuments from around the world (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel cracks open in the space between Adam's and God's fingers) until cataclysmic tsunamis wash over the Himalayas. What breathtaking nerve! It's all a sight to behold (and to be seen on the biggest screen you can find). Emmerich's done several disaster movies before - I saw "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow" the days they opened (!) - but in this one Emmerich evokes not only those but a dozen other movies, too, from "Poseidon Adventure" through to "Battlestar Galactica."

So why does one - why do I - enjoy such spectacles? (I avoid films of violence on a smaller scale.) The near-profound rush of the sublime? The prophylactic sense that if we imagine worse things than could ever happen, we might be spared the worst than can?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Noh way

Isn't it great when you learn to appreciate something you at first couldn't appreciate at all? Had that experience this afternoon listening to Benjamin Britten's Curlew River. I saw this "church parable" - a kind of chamber opera intended for performance in a church - performed in Berlin years ago (not in a church but in a culture center in a converted brewery), but it seemed to me then neither fish nor fowl. I went to see it because it was described as an adaptation of the Noh drama Sumidagawa, which sounded intriguing. (Like Britten, I saw Sumidagawa performed in Japan, looking like the scene below.) But the costumes were low-budget samurai movie and the music didn't sound right: was this supposed to sound Japanese? It just sounded weird. This time, listening to a recording with Peter Pears (in the picture above) and knowing that the story was not supposed to be Japanese but to take place in the Christian middle ages, I found it to be fish and fowl. It's haunting and wondrous, with the eeriness and sorrow of the Noh and the pathos and hope of a medieval mystery play. Dramatically, musically and even religiously it's a fascinating adaptation - which is why I was listening. For it's time again to think about Religion & Theater, which my friend C and I teach again this coming semester! I'm pushing for a refined structure from last time, which for all the fascinating material we covered proved too episodic for many students. Instead, we'll have thematic units, each on a religious studies theme but centered on a particular play. Over three or four classes we'll discuss the religious and dramatic background of the play, religious issues it explores, how the play was understood and performed at its time and in our own - and how it has been adapted or emulated or transformed by later artists. This is where Curlew River will come in. (Several interesting new productions, true to Britten's intention, are available online, including the one from Festival Retz 2006 below that's actually performed in a church.) It's not only a remarkable amalgam, and a reminder that medieval religious traditions are still powerful, but it raises fascinating questions about the way ideas or traditions move from one religious world to another. Sumidagawa is a Buddhist story; Curlew River a Christian one. What are we to make of the replacement of Amida and the Pure Land with Christ and heaven? Is the message the same in both traditions? Or perhaps what's shared is a mood...! Should make for a good discussion!

Friday, November 27, 2009

The twain meets

Here's one of the most striking works of art I've seen in a long time, Michael Damaskenos' "Adoration of the Magi" (1585-91). What's striking is the force of it, which comes in part from the fusion of two different artistic traditions - one Western, in the bodies and movements, the other Eastern, in the gold background and, especially, the stylized craggy mountain that rises up in the picture's middle. It's as if the magi were coming from the land of icons to the incarnated world of Italian painting. But in other paintings in the amazing exhibition "The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Greece" at the Onassis Cultural Center, the directionality is the opposite. In the painting on the poster, "Chist and the Woman of Samaria," possibly by Nikolaos Tzafouris, icon-mountains rise against a Bellini-blue sky. In another (sorry, I couldn't find an image for you), the hand of Mary Magdalene, three-dimensional, her body contorted, is stayed by a just-risen Christ in the garden; he's the iconic one here, more and less than 3-D. The point was that Crete, by this time a Venetian colony and home to a number of Orthodox artists who fled the fall of Constantinople, was a confluence of artistic (and religious) cultures, and a site of prodigious borrowing (the "Pieta" above, on loan from the Hermitage, is Bellini on gold; asks the Times critic, "Is the painting Cretan or Venetian? Your call.") and remarkable creativity. El Greco didn't come out of the blue, but out of a culture mediating and melding traditions we're used to seeing in strict historic succession in western art museums. But here - over years stretching from the fall of Constantinople through the Counter-Reformation - we see conventions of the Orthodox icon tradition hobnobbing with dynamic three-dimensional bodies, landscapes, perspective, and even late Gothic motifs like the roiling crowd at the foot of the cross in in Andreas Pavias' "Crucifixion" above (which reminds me of contemporary but Lutheran altarpieces I saw in Germany). Of course Domenikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco, represented here by early works like "The Dormition of the Virgin" (before 1567) and most strikingly by the study for a "Coronation of the Virgin" below (1603), after he'd retrained in Italy and moved to Toledo, remains an astounding original even when seen as a product of this artistic and cultural ferment! But it's a peculiar pleasure to see that it wasn't just his genius, but a whole hybridizing culture at play here... The exhibit said little about the clash or convergence of religions in Crete - it was noted that motifs from Greek and Latin Christian traditions came together, and even that Francis of Assisi was venerated among Crete's Orthodox, but when and how and why El Greco changed religion wasn't mentioned. (Perhaps he didn't? It would be very interesting to see how these works were received by theologians, and in lay practice, at the time.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Two Thanksgivings in one day is plenty. Even if you have almost no breakfast, and vow to take only a little of the first, it's still a little of a great many things: salmon caviar toasts and pont l'evêque for starters, then a light salad (provided by yours truly) followed by roast brined turkey with spinach and sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, acorn squash stuffed with apple and lardons, and brussels sprouts with butter and walnut. Even if you skip the dessert (assorted pies), you realize with chagrin as you're walking to the subway to head to the next Thanksgiving that you're already packed to the gills. And yet, faced with hand-picked wild rice stuffing with walnuts and apricots, green beans sautéd with sliced brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes and yams, a cranberry ginger chutney - and more turkey! - you find you can't hold back. When the two pumpkin pies - one with an inspired improvised pecan crust - arrive, you, who usually keep your distance from pumpkin pies, actually wonder if you shouldn't ask for more whipped cream. Oy!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wild west

Found myself this grey day on the far west of Chelsea. New buildings by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, and the green-grey of the sky reflected in the Hudson. It's a different world out there!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


These pics are from a few days back: The new playful jet fountain in front of the Brooklyn Museum, dramatic even in the dark of a November 5pm. And Jesus Ministered to by Angels, one of the more fascinating of James Tissot's exquisite late 19th century watercolors of the Life of Christ on display there. Most of the watercolors - the citizens of Brooklyn pooled resources to buy all 350 of them when the Museum was just starting - are naturalistic, full of color and detail informed by Tissot's travels in the Holy Land. Just often enough, though, a scene reminds you that Jesus' life wasn't just an interesting historical episode.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The face of protest

We had another "incident" at school last week. (I'm not sure why I use the scare-quotes; I guess it's because I'm not sure whether calling something an incident makes it seem more or less significant than it really is, and - having learned of it third or fourth hand - I don't know if what happened is less or more significant than it seems.) Apparently some students in ski-masks, invoking comrades in Greece and at the University of California, tried to climb the scaffolding on 65 Fifth Ave and ran through some classes at Parsons. Two were rather brutally arrested by the NYPD (neither turned out to be a New School student).

I wasn't there. But it does seem likely, a colleague who's been in touch with the disaffected students' groups told me, that beneath their balaclavas the protesters were mainly straight white men. Recalling her days as a campus protester (for feminist, queer and antiglobalist causes), she expressed concern at the way in which the disaffected straight white man had become the image of protest at the New School.

For my part, I couldn't suppress the thought that disaffected straight white men are also the fan-base of Sarah Palin. I'm not suggesting any parity here (as someone inspired by the rhetorical moves of the Comité Invisible might). Just sayin'.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Going hungry

From today's Times
(Week in Review, 2)

Shocking! In what
was once the richest nation on earth!!

And this was 2008,
before the Great Recession really hit.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Had more people in my place tonight than I think I've ever had - current religious studies students, a few alumni and a faculty friend. Here are some of them.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Took a few hours this afternoon to go up to the Met with my friend A. A gorgeous day for it, Central Park's last leaves bright like a painting. We met in the newly redone American Wing, which displays glassware (not all of it so memorable on its own) in a bath of natural light. Seeing them was almost as delightful as visiting Roxy Paine's "Maelstrom" on the roof again. Glad it's still there: I wish they'd make it permanent! But our main objective was to see the photographs from Robert Frank's 1959 The Americans, which are stunning. Frank had a way of catching moments which are so true (and in their truth often devastating) it was almost painful to witness them. "Trolley, New Orleans" (1955), below, is perhaps the most well-known picture of the series, a primer in segregation, caught by accident - Frank was photographing a parade but happened to look behind him and saw this trolley - just weeks before Rosa Parks made history, but also a remarkable photograph: what inarticulable depths of trouble and sorrow are conveyed by those strange shapes and reflections above and below the windows!) But Frank also ordered the photographs in subtle visually linked sequences which it was a treat to be able to survey in their whole sweep. Our fave, also in Louisiana:

Farewell 65

Scaffolding has gone up along the sides of 65 Fifth Avenue, for nearly forty years the home of the New School's Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science. (Before that it was Lane's department store, donated to the school on its fiftieth anniversary in 1969). Soon, tarps will hide it. And when the tarps go down, the building will be gone. (A new, glass-skinned building will take its place.) These might be my last views of it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Free lunch

Learned another new word today: freegan. The freegan (a word crafted in emulation of the moral paragon du jour, the vegan) opts out of the consumerist economy by never paying for food. Instead, freegans forage for discarded but unspoiled food behind supermarkets (also known as dumpster diving). There's a glâneur-like romance to it, I guess, at least in pictures like the one at left (which I found here).

Freegans (I learned on a New York website) are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources. Freegans embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.

But I learned about it in a less romantic context. One of our first year students is in a snit at her freegan suitemate, who apparently dives not only into dumpsters but into her suitemates' larders. When confronted, the freegan responded with conviction: "I never pay for food!" This left the victim of the freeloading perplexed - for she's a tolerant person and wants to respect her suitemate's principles and convictions.

Hearing about this from a peer adviser who was also in perplexity, I had a hard time being sympathetic. It's theft, I wanted to say, plain and simple! But for these students it's clearly not that simple. There's something commendable and inspiring about the freegan's free spirit, I guess. You do want to respect people's convictions and especially, perhaps, the most idealistic ones.

Still, the peer adviser counseled, you might want to lock up your food.

Art film

Film Forum has paired a new print of "The Red Shoes" - the most famous of all dance movies - with "La Danse." And what a pairing it is! I'd never seen "The Red Shoes" before, so was unprepared for its wit, its beauty, its passion, and its heartbreak! There's also something incredibly fresh about it - in its path-breaking use of color, and in the remarkable freshness of Moira Shearer. And what an argument it is for the power of film to complete the live performing arts...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Tom Toles, always spot-on. And the second punch-like (here "A metaphor for our health care spending") is always at least as good as the first!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Max Weber comes around regularly in my teaching. We've just read his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in Theorizing Religion, surely at least the dozenth time (is that a word?) I've taught it. I suppose it's always valuable to read a classic, and there are probably few books on religion which have been so influential in so many non-academic contexts: Weber's role as the anti-Marx during the Cold War (value-neutrality and the importance of ideas vs. materialisms); the "Protestant Ethic" model in economic development work (only religious ideas like the Protestant ideas of vocation and predestination were thought capable of uprooting the religious traditionalisms which constrain economic rationalization); the "Protestant work ethic" as the secret of America's WASPy heart; Weberian "disenchantment" as a template for understanding the effects of modern science and inevitable secularization; etc.

Each of these is either a partial reading, indeed a kind of misreading, or based on parts of Weber's argument no longer thought to be valid - but in the case of so important a book it's valuable to learn to see through these interpretations, too: Weber's a lot closer to Marx than was thought half a century ago, not the anti-Marx but Marx-plus; the Calvinism-capitalism connection has been historically discounted; many of us wonder if the heart of America was ever as uncomplicatedly WASPy as all that, and if it hasn't always been as much a normative as a descriptive view; the star of Weber's "disenchantment" story isn't science but "rationalization," which interests him primarily when it's played out in practice - ascetic, economic, bureaucratic... and is the world really disenchanted?

I used to love Weber. A paper on his theory of theodicy - the idea that it's the encounter with the intractable "practical irrationality" of the world that fuels the rationalization of religious ideas, which also dooms every religious tradition to move toward utter world-rejection - my first semester in grad school set the rails for a dissertation on the problem of evil: there was to be a chapter on Weber in the original plan, and I even got a grant to spend a year in Japan trying to understand Weber's views on Asian religious ideas, especially karma. In Japan I learned to savor the existentialism of Weber's views - Japanese Weber scholarship is mediated by Karl Jaspers' essay on Weber as the first true existentialist - and met a scholar who connected Weber's views on Indian religions with Schopenhauer's sexy pessimism; another scholar took Weber's disappointed conclusion that the Chinese world never "got" the problem of evil and so would never suffer disenchantment as a program for resisting rationalization.

If one could stay the disenchantment of the world, I could see how one might want to. But for the West, surely, it was too late. The light cloak of Protestant "inner-worldly asceticism" has "become an iron cage" and "the idea of duty in one's calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs." Elsewhere, Weber speaks darkly (and excitingly) about the ideas of vocation as "old gods ris[ing] from their graves" but in disenchanted form, as incompatible ways of leading a life. The picture was grim but dramatic, even tragic. To face the fact that your life could never make sense because your culture had wiped out all merely magical consolations was to be truly alive, to assume the responsibilities of authentic life. And paradoxically but also thrillingly, facing the abyss as a modern disenchanted westerner was the way to play one's part in a unified history of the human effort to make sense of reality.

I don't get that buzz anymore. Why is that? Is it that the world, even this western one, doesn't seem quite as disenchanted as all that? Or that human history no longer seems a meaningful whole anymore? More the former, I think. But the Weberian call to honesty remains a valuable one, and it's worth asking oneself if one's openness to religion is really merely a refusal to face what one takes to be the facts.

We're discussing this in class Thursday: students had over the last week to visit a "post-1799 religion" and prepare a description of the tradition and their experience there. Are "new religions" (religions which have formed since the rise of capitalism and the nation state, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the separation of church and state, etc.) disproof of secularization theory, or a confirmation of it...? I've asked the students for Thursday to consider if the new religion they looked into "is nostalgic delusion (Sigmund Freud), secular religion (Saba Mahmood) or something genuinely new."

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I generally don't do spoilers, but I feel a need to say that "Where the Wild Things Are" is not really appropriate for children. This is in large part because it is a whole lot darker than the feel-good previews. The world to which Max sails across the sea in Spike Jonze's movie is one of lonely unhappy creatures, which he seems at first able to "make OK" but slowly learns he cannot. I have an entirely different recollection of the book - Max travels (from the safety of his bedroom, not from having run out of the house into the night) to a place of initially frightening but soon amiable animals, they have a grand time together, but he realizes he misses his world and returns to it - in time for dinner, which is still hot. The film is beautifully made (and shot in Victoria!), but a downer. A good part of the time I felt like I was vicariously experiencing someone else's unhappy childhood - is this how awful it is to have your parents break up? - but at the end I wondered also if this was what it's like to live with depression - in your family, and also in you. In between, I wondered if I wasn't in fact recalling memories of my own, which I had suppressed (or just forgotten). It can be a dark lonely thing to be a little person, even if you don't have to deal with damaged lonely big people.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Gotta danse!

I don't know if Frederick Wiseman's "La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet" is (as the Times critic put it) "one of the finest dance films every made" - I haven't seen enough others to say. But it is certainly marvellous, if so rich and exhilarating as to leave one rather exhausted by the end. Over nearly three hours, you get to see every part of the Palais Garnier, from the basement to a beekeeper on the roof, from the costume shop to the choreographers, from the canteen to the director's meeting room. There's no narration, no interviews - we never "get to know" anyone, or even hear what they say to each other before and after. It's mainly wonderfully intimate scenes of dancers working with teachers and choreographers, as well as scenes (taken from the wings!) of the final performances, always in perfect scale - you can see the whole dancer, filling the frame - so the musicality and athleticism of the dancers is on full display, as well as the exquisite alchemy of duet and ensemble work. Works from the classical repertoire through new works (some nicer than others) are being rehearsed and performed, so you also get a good sense of the different but perhaps complementary charms of classical and modern dance. (The image above isn't in the film - it's all I could find on the website, but in no way conveys the movement and energy of the film.)

The almost sacramental power of dance is on full display in this film, pushing me anew to wonder in what ways dance is a sort of religion, not only for its practitioners (someone is quoted a having said that a dancer has to be part nun, part boxer) but for its devotees...

Is Facebook our fate?

One of the pleasures of being at a small college is getting to know colleagues in many different fields. Sometimes you're even tapped to participate in their projects. One of my colleagues is a specialist on new media, especially social media, and he asked me to moderate one of the panels of a big conference he put together on digital labor. The conference seeks to understand the significance of the fact that hundreds of millions people continuously make the totality of their life energy available to a handful of businesses and explores alternatives and forms of resistance to this state of affairs. Our lives have been changed more profoundly than we may realize by new media, especially the interactive Web 2.0; the personal lives of many people are unthinkable without Facebook, blogs (!), and the like. What makes all this possible, does it make it possible for everyone, and what costs - social and personal - does it exact? Should we fight this system?

Moderating requires no particular knowledge of what's discussed, but it puts you close to the action. So yesterday I shared the dais with three scholars - one from media studies, one from sociology, one from a law school - discussing issues of justice and ethics in new media and beyond.

The first speaker argued that every network creates externalities, and so the sociality of the wired world necessarily builds on oppression beyond that world. (Did you know that an avatar on Second Life has a carbon footprint greater than that of the average Brazilian?) We need to develop "paranodal" resistance, outside the "nodes" of dominant networks! The second - he teaches a lot at business schools, so sees things somewhat differently from the first speaker - argued that social networking has so changed the practice of business that a new ethical culture is emerging, a culture which values not labor-time but the quality of human relations: a return to Aristotle! The last speaker likened the role of "middlemen" like Google, eBay and Facebook to other entities which make a profit in presenting what seems an objective alternative to the market: The virtuous Google beat out other search engines by offering truly "organic" links; The virtuous eBay set up a fair reputation system; etc. Yet the mechanisms by which users' contributions are brought together in rankings and ratings remains hidden, and these middlemen can favor some users over others, or even exclude some from participation altogether. On an analogy with health insurance, he recommended a Medicare for all model for access to online, and complete transparency in their practices.

Three very different presentations, on three very different registers! It made for a lively discussion, though a somewhat unfocused one. The us-vs.-them pathos of the first and third papers found more resonance in the audience than the insider optimism of the second. But the most interesting part of the discussion (for me at least) had to do with whether there are alternative to using big services like Facebook. The conference organizer was in the room and said he thought it was necessary to be part of Facebook in order to establish a career. A woman in the audience, thinking he was happy with this state of affairs, insisted "You always have a choice! There's always a choice!"

What if he's right? What if participation in social networks is increasingly like access to electricity or potable water - a necessity? The third speaker's argument for making these public goods seems pretty compelling. The second speaker's hope that this new form of engagement with others will change - is indeed already changing - society for the better even makes this seem a happy turn of fate. But the first speaker's worries linger. Aristotle's ethical gentlemen were able to pursue truth, justice and friendship together because the rest of Athens was busy taking care of them.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Changing face

Here's an amusing cameo of the changing religious face of the city. What was a democratic club with an Indian name in the 1930s became an Indian Ashram in the 1970s and is now a Hispanic Evangelical Church.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Best opera deal in town

I've heard for years about Juilliard Opera, and finally went tonight - a wonderful production of Handel's "Ariodante" with six up and coming singers all of whom have great careers ahead of them. (Most impressive were soprano Haeran Hong, mezzo Cecelia Hall and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, though tenor Nicholas Coppolo's voice sometimes reminded me of the greatest Heldentenöre, bass Shenyang was very fine, and soprano Tharanga Goonetilleke's voice veritably glowed by opera's end.) Tickets are $20, so the remaining two performances (tonight was the premiere), Friday evening and Sunday matinee, are probably long ago sold out. But worth trying for. This is Handel at his loveliest. And it's not often that every part of an ensemble is this good a singer - and actor, too.

(I'm off to another opera tomorrow, part of a hiccupy five days with two operas, two dinner parties, and two movies - and perhaps two sessions of the conference on Digital Labor, too.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Only symbolic?

Meine Kooperation mit den Nazis ist nur symbolisch (My cooperation with the Nazis is only symbolic), says a guard at the train station of Bregenz as he lets a man whom the Gestapo inspector had forbidden to pass go back on the train to Switzerland while his supervisor is distracted. It's a tense if somehow unconvincing scene, shot dutifully at night with lots of shadow and steam. It comes 47 minutes into Francis Ford Coppola's not very good 2007 film "Youth Without Youth," as the film's protagonist Dominic Matei completes his flight from the Nazis who were after him in his native Romania.

The scene is not in the novella on which the film is based, Coppola notes in the director's commentary, but based on a story he had heard in another connection; he added it to helps explain how Matei manages to escape. There's more going on here, though. The novella "Youth without youth" is by Mircea Eliade, and by the time Coppola managed to raise the funds to produce this labor of love, Eliade's complicity in Romanian fascism had become a topic of considerable controversy. I suppose one can look like a Nazi without really being one, but should Eliade be let off the hook this way? (It is in any case exceedingly poor taste to let Matei - played by Tim Roth, who looks like Eliade in old pictures - seem an honorary Jew here; the train station scene is a trope of Holocaust narratives.)

And what does "only symbolic" mean in the context of Eliade's work, as a theorist of sacred symbols (!) and as the author of magical realist fictional works like this one (published in 1976), where an old scholar is rejuvenated by a bolt of lightning to become a "post-human" superman who sees that whole civilizations may need to be destroyed on the way to a future in which humanity can live in harmony with time again? On one level, fascism itself is "only symbolic" - but an "only symbolic" that can be deadly for those seen to resist the symbolic.

I played this and other clips from "Youth Without Youth" in Theorizing Religion today as a way of raising questions about Eliade and faschistisches Gedankengut. As in years past (where I raised the same questions, though without Coppola's help), many students were simply annoyed. So what if Eliade consorted with antisemites and if his theory of the sacred and profane derives from the work of a teacher (Nae Ionesco) who inspired a fascistic and antidemocratic group? Is it such a big deal if there are echoes of historic anti-Jewish claims in Eliade's assertions that it is with "Judaism" that the sacred "idea of cyclical time is left behind," leading to the fateful "desacralization of the world" and its terrifying relativism (The Sacred and the Profane, 110), and that supposedly "nonreligious" man "forms himself by a series of denials and refusals" (204)? Even if Eliade were a fascist, would it matter since it's us making use of his ideas? I won no friends by suggesting that there wasn't just one fascist moment long ago and far away, but that it's a temptation today too - and not just a symbolic one.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Colors of Montréal

The rather bright colors of the Palais des Congrés made a lot more sense to me when I visited the rather, uh, breathtaking Basilique Notre Dame.


My final panel for this AAR - the Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection Group's discussion "Applying Modern Academic Findings to Help Inform Buddhist Understandings Today" - crystallized for me the place where much of what I encountered this time leaves me: the relationship of academic work in religious studies to broader communities not of scholarship but of faith and identity. Or: the place within religious studies itself of constructive (as opposed to descriptive or critical) work.

Who would have thought that the trial-separation from supposedly too-normative SBL would have brought this out into the open! (It is certainly possible that this has been going on all along in AAR, but I just didn't find my way to the relevant panels. But the very existence of a "Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection" group is news to me.) In any case, its exploration of the contributions scholarly work can make outside the academy resonated with the discussions of Québec's ethics and religious culture curriculum (ERC), with colonized and First Peoples' demands that we undo the dehumanization of earlier religious studies, through creative expression as well as through scholarship, the call to understand the significance of transhuman futures, the engaged intellectuals Ramadan, Cone, West, Altizer and Zizek, even with the contributions to bi- and trans- "theologies" of two papers at the Queer Theory and LGBT Studies in Religion Consultation. (Even the tired discussions of civil religion and secularism are closer to constructive work in their way.) What happened to "they study God, we study them" and why am I not sorry at the change?

The most interesting paper I heard (I had to leave after three) was not the titillating propadeutic to a contemporary Buddhist sexual ethics or the somewhat unsurprising report that the Rinzai School of Japanese Zen had done little beyond apologize under pressure for the way its members and institutions aided the Japanese war effort in the 1930s and 1940s, but Rita Gross' talk "Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners." Gross described her efforts to teach a "nonsectarian Buddhist history" at Lotus Garden, a Tibetan Buddhist center with which she has long been associated. She encountered a lot of resistance, and found that many devoted practitioners were not only woefully ignorant of the history of their own tradition, but unable to cope with the history. Confronted with the multiplicity and contingency of Buddhist history, many in her audience (not all) responded like flatfooted "empiricists," indeed like "literalist fundamentalists": "are you saying it didn't happen?" In vain did she argue that the validity of various teachings wasn't underminded by an appreciation of their historicity. Indeed, she argued, Buddhists especially should be able to deal with and even appreciate historical awareness, and listed five principles of a historical approach which correspond to Buddhist values:

(1) all sources must be considered without prioritization
(2) change is normal and to be expected
(3) things change in different ways in different places and times, so diversity is to be expected
(4) change can be explained, but not supernaturally
(5) the present consensus of historians is a hypothesis which, too, is likely to change with time

Interesting to think how awareness of impermanence, a commitment to compassion and to right speech, and the fruits of meditation in awareness of pratitya samutpada and "letting differences be," might aid and be aided by historical consciousness. The aims and methods aren't that different from ERC's... I wonder what secular historians would make of this?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Stars truck

Sat through three big plenaries with famous speakers today - Tariq Ramadan, James Cone interviewed by Cornel West, and Thomas Altizer and Slavoj Zizek. Ramadan is a charismatic Islamic moderate, one of the world's most important and certainly the most visible of younger Muslim intellectuals (at least in the West). AAR has invited him several years in a row, but because the State Department under Bush wouldn't give him a visa, we've had to wait until this AAR meeting in Canada. (Apparently the State Department is revisiting the case.) Ramadan's not interested in reforming Islam but "reforming Muslim minds and interpretations," he explained, not "adaptation" to the changing world but its "transformation." Just like Christians, Jews and Buddhists, he added, a bit too often. The differences that make the difference weren't part of this talk, or not for this audience.

James Cone is the father of liberation theology, still incandescent after forty years. It's hard to recall that before Cone started writing, the idea that Christianity was a religion of liberation for oppressed people was unknown, at least in the world of theology - he builds on African-American folk traditions. It was fascinating and moving to hear about his life, begun in a segregated town in Arkansas and winding up at Union Theological Seminary, a figure of international stature who inspired oppressed communities around the world to find in Christianity a resource rather than a restraint. His new project is a book on the cross and the lynching tree; how could Christian theologians in America during the century of lynching not have seen any parallels between Christ and scapegoated victims nailed to trees?

The final session proved too much to bear, and I left before it ended (my friend R was ready to leave sooner). Altizer is the most famous of the "death of God theologians," who had their moment a bit before Cone inaugurated liberation theology. Marxist (occasionally Stalinist) Lacanian Zizek is the darling and buffoon of the contemporary philosophy and critical theory; to be a true atheist, he asserted, you need to go through Christianity. Both call themselves "atheist Christians," Altizer because he thinks God killed himself on the cross, and Zizek because he knows how to get people's attention and keep it. I'd never been in a room, even a huge one, with Zizek before; his bad behavior and buffoonery made me wonder whether Sasha Baron Cohen had a convincing alibi for the afternoon. I also wondered, though with less anger than R, why anyone should be interested in autopsies when there's no corpse in sight.

This was too much of celebrity, and also a kind of come-down from the visionary to the merely flashy. I was good and ready for a drink before dinner!