Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Spineless wonders

The newly redesigned Scientific American seems to have more short articles of general interest - good for readers like me, I suppose. In one we learn that scientists have discovered that squid can fly - as much as 10m, propelled by jet-like streams of expelled water. Someone's finally caught it in pictures, which expert eyes even think confirm that "mollust aeronautics" involves using fins for navigation!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Who knew?

The latest Pew Forum survey on religion finds that Americans, while very devout, don't know much about religion. Those who did best in identifying "core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions" - answering on average 20.9 out of 32 questions correctly - were Atheists/Agnostics, with Jews a close second at 20.5; Mormons were third at 20.3. Golly! But what does this tell us?

It gets more interesting as you break it down further, but the main headline shouldn't be surprising. Minorities always have to understand majorities; the contrary doesn't happen - certainly not without concerted efforts at public education. Further, the study finds that education correlates with higher scores, and Atheists/Agnostics and Jews are more educated than the general public. (And note that "Atheist/Agnostic" is a self-identifying, not a default group, distinguished from "Nothing in Particular"; the survey found 212 of the former, 334 of the latter.)

But there's more going on. As study after study shows, religious people generally don't know much about their own traditions either. Should one be surprised that:

More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly iden- tify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.

It's sort of shocking but - to this scholar of religion at least - not surprising. Lived religion and textbook religion are different animals. Indeed, I read about this study shortly after giving a presentation in a class (on population demographics) in which I drove home the "religion is not belief" theme by giving examples like this. I mentioned a finding from an earlier Pew survey you might remember. How many American Catholics were found to believe in reincarnation? More than one-in-four (28%)! "So can you be Catholic and believe in karma?" I asked. And was very pleased when someone answered: "Yes."

I'm not advocating ignorance. I'm appalled at this, for instance:

Monday, September 27, 2010

Has anyone noticed? Long overdue, the MTA has a new format for service advisories. It's more colorful, and much more detailed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Broader than the measure of the mind

A beautiful but difficult service at church today, saying farewell to a beloved Associate Rector who's served here for twenty-one years, and is moving on to new challenges. It's called a Service for the Ending of a Pastoral Relationship and Leave-taking from a Congregation. After a festival Eucharist with many of her favorite hymns (including the mesmerizing 469, right, which seems to roll powerfully on and on "like the wideness of the sea") and a wonderful last sermon, came these words:

I ask if you, the people of ___, recognize and accept the conclusion of this pastoral relationship, releasing me from my responsibilities as ___.

People: We do.

And I in turn release you from turning to me and depending on me as a pastor in this place. I offer my blessing, support and encouragement to ____, and the other clergy who will serve after me.

It was a good demonstration of the power of ritual. Without it, I suspect we would all have burst into tears.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Horace Kallen, an all-around public intellectual, taught at the New School from 1919 until 1973 (!). Kallen is now remembered as the author of the idea of "cultural pluralism," an alternative to the "melting pot," but his interests were far broader. Pragmatist, democratic theorist and early Zionist, he was a mainstay of New School life. He was a wit too:

'The scholar's world, like the story-teller's, is the world of stories ... and it is true that most of them are false ideas. Were most not false, there would be no generations of scholars to count."
The Book of Job as Greek Tragedy
(NY: Hill and Wang, 1959 [1918]), xviii

College Prolongs Infancy
Title of a pamphlet from 1932

People say they cannot change the past. But Kallen asked: "What else is there to change? What else is the present but the past changing?"
Milton R. Konvitz, "Horace Meyer Kallen (1882-1974): In Praise of Hyphenation and Orchestration," in The Legacy of Horace M. Kallen, ed. Konvitz (Herzl Press 1987), 33

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lost in translation

Pope Benedict broke with his usual rule only to preside at canonizations when he presided at the beatification of John Henry Newman in England last week. Father Keith Beaumont, official Church biographer of Newman, has suggested that Benedict XVI relaxed his rule because he feels a special kinship with the intellectual, artistic and spiritual Newman, and the quality of his engagement with his times.

To the people of today, Blessed John Henry Newman proposes "the model of a penetrating, vast learning, willingness to engage with all the currents of thought of his time, of profound respect of the 'real' -- his thought is worlds apart from any form of ideology, and of great openness of spirit, all allied to a profound and intimate sense of God, to a constant search for God, to a profound love of God," the biographer said.

It's likely Newman will ultimately be canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church, something Beaumont reports all the Popes since Pius XII have wished for. (Source for the famous Millais portrait.)

Beatifying Newman was a cheeky thing to do, given Rome's recent efforts to lure traditionalist Anglicans back to Mother Church. Newman, probably the most famous Anglican convert to Catholicism, was nevertheless opposed to such doctrines as papal infallibility, but is being presented as a glorious example of human intellect submitting to the authority of the Church. Newman's "grammar of assent" is a bit more complex, methinks.

His life, too, is a little more complex than that of your standard issue saint. He was extremely close to another priest, Ambrose St. John, and they lived together for thirty years. (Painting above by Mary Giberne) It is probably anachronistic to suppose them sexually involved, but soulmates they clearly were. The connection was strong enough that Newman insisted on being buried in the same grave as St. John.

They were together in death 118 years, but in 2008 Newman's remains were removed from the grave - they are needed as relics. The double grave with its awkward questions will have no place in the cult of Blessed Newman. But Perhaps someday all of Newman's life will be remembered and revered.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


It's probably snobby of me to say this, but the theater projections of live performances of opera and theater which are the latest thing, miss their mark. This judgment may be precipitate: all I've seen is two of the Met in HD ("Doctor Atomic" and "Carmen") and the London National Theatre's inaugural broadcast (Racine's "Phèdre," with Helen Mirren in the title part), which was just rescreened this evening - all rebroadcasts. But these, at least, had the same shortcomings, and make me wonder at the whole enterprise - though curious about another approach.

What all three had in common was what any self-respecting film will nowadays have - multiple camera angles including wide-angles from the corners of the stage and closeups of performers, and the occasional shots where cameras move horizontally or vertically to follow an action or show a novel perspective. This allowed the audience to see things which only select members of a real audience could. But at what cost?

I'd assumed, when the Met in HD series was inaugurated, that the intention was to recreate the experience of being in the opera house, but something entirely different is going on. Since the camera has no fixed point of view, the viewer is in no fixed relation to the stage. She's everywhere and nowhere. And since most scenes are close-ups rather than images of the whole stage, there's no possibility that the film viewer could feel she was is in the same space as the performers. The NT production at least had the curtain call at the end, but the Met productions edit out the audience completely - no applause, even. The performance is in a void, not even aimed in any particular direction. The director's, set designer's and performer's orientations are scuttled. For instance, the stunning (if ultimately wearisome) screen which dominated "Doctor Atomic" below (a picture from the house, not the film), was never once shown from head-on as it was meant to be seen.

While visually pretty interesting, the film versions cut up what should be experienced as a Gesamtkunstwerk - a total work of art, I realized on watching the films, that includes the space of the performance hall, the air breathed by performers and audience alike, the space which both audience and performers strive to traverse with gazes and sounds.

I saw "Doctor Atomic" from the Family Circle, and was keen to compare the Met in HD version as the original had seemed insufficiently operatic - the director was a film director who'd never done opera before, and who seemed to me unable to fill the stage, used as she was as a film maker to being able to simply turn the camera from one scene to another. But seeing it now as a film I realized that the opera's power such as it was was that of opera, of a single overpowering whole which challenges and embraces you. The film version bungled the two main coups de théâtre of the production: the appearance of that row of life-sized kachina figures at the top of the screen, emerging ever so slowly from the dark in a place which had earlier contained something else, and, earlier in the opera, the lowering into the center of the space of the stage of the bomb. Hanging there, mute and threatening, its true power unknown by any of the characters on the stage, it took over the whole space of the Metropolitan Opera House, in an utterly terrifying way. And it just stayed there, mutely threatening, the sense of ominousness building and building. In the film version, we actually looked up with a camera to see it lowered by a boom from rafter full of lights, etc.; obviously a prop, it then disappeared from view except for brief cuts to closeups. No deal.

And in tonight's "Phèdre," something analogous. As the smitten Phèdre writhes in anguish at her impossible love for her stepson, members of our movie audience giggled. Giggled! They would never have dared if in a space with actual actors. Indeed, the very lines which elicited the nervous giggles were among the play's most powerful - in some cases precisely because they were slightly ridiculous. That's the extent of her tragic derangement. That's part of the pity and horror. I realized that it only works if the actor suffering before you makes it impossible for you to look away, to think "it's only art" with relief or pleasure or disappointment. Film can generate immediacy of its own, no doubt. But the immediacy of live performance is different, and gets lost in the translation to film. I was reminded of Grotowski's manifestos for a "poor theater," a theater does what only it can do. For him it's all about the reality of the performers' bodies, and their pain - not feigned but real. Only being made witness to that can the viewer be affected in a real way by the performance.

But I don't want to conclude that there's no way of sharing live performance with remote audiences. What if, instead of trying to make it satisfying the way films are (changes in angle, scale, etc., and available in a non-space for viewers to imaginatively enter), the experience of the actual audience member were recreated: a fixed view (from the best seat in the house, of course), but in sufficient detail (HD!) that the viewer could focus on particular scenes and performers, as one naturally does. (The eye, as we know, bounces around scenes it surveys, all the time.) Instead of 3D glasses the audience coud be given disposable opera glasses! If you were surrounded by other viewers in a similar relationship to the performance - seated next to and behind you and in front of you in the movie theater - and knew the broadcast to be live, you just might get some sense of participation in the spectacle, of sharing that space and that time with these performers. Very old fashioned, I know. But I suspect it might work. Only for those who've had the good fortune to taste the genuine article? Perhaps, but maybe not. It's worth a try. For the three-dimensional experience of live staged performance, the audience needs to feel part of the same space as the performance.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nothin' like a dame

Found myself on the website of a British publisher today (ordering a desk copy of a book on religion and American popular culture, as it happens) and was caught off guard by the multiplicity of possible Salutations. Où est madame?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


The wrapping of the Jefferson Market Public Library continues apace. It's a lot of work. Since last week, they added enough wooden platforms to make it look like a Chinese pagoda. Today, the black cloth was spread over - notice the man unfurling the curtain. Soon I expect it will look like a rocket!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Instead of testing, says Susan Engel, we should

come up with assessments that truly measure the qualities of well-educated children: the ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; the capacity to know when a problem calls for mathematics and quantification; the agility to move from concrete examples to abstract principles and back again; the ability to think about a situation in several different ways; and a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live.

I say amen to that!


On Union Square right now, Sukkah City, the dozen top submissions to a competition to reimagine the Sukkah (the ceremonial booth for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which this year runs from the 23rd to the 29th of this month). Many were striking, several were thought provoking, but one seemed to me clearly loveliest. Called Shim Sukkah, it constructed a hut of shims, the detritus of sawmills used to fill small gaps on construction sites. "The shim's typical function is to hide imperfections," the designers Timber Tinker explain. The result, a shelter whose walls - providing both shade and a view - can be pushed out to make of any part an opening, is simply gorgeous. It achieves all that a Sukkah must - a roof, made of things from the earth but no longer connected to the earth, providing shade by day but a view of stars by night, and at least two-and-a-half walls, easily assembled and disassembled. It's also a lovely evokation of the spirit of a holiday about temporary homelessness, of religious holidays as filling the gaps of our lives (or shall I say, making then whole) - and of the potential of the cast-offs of society to restore the whole. Truly a thing of beauty!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wisdom from a flower

He is happiest who hath power
To gather wisdom from a flower.

- Mary Howitt

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a wonder of which I too rarely take advantage. Here are some gleanings from a walk with my friends L & S. We called the wild garden above the Pandora Garden as its weird and brightly colored plants seemed like something from the film "Avatar." Dinosaur Kale (in the Herb Garden) is its own strange planet, too. The Japanese Garden is always lovely, though I confess I did not before today realize that the Torii is connected to an actual Shinto shrine, up the hill on the left. The turtle lives in the lake, so never gets to see the lovely lotuses in the Visitors Center pond. These giant crocuses were a surprise. I saw little evidence of storm damage - the BBG is too far east to have got the brunt of it - except this shell of a once towering willow tree.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

City signatures

In the Times today, two maps (you know how I love maps) of signatures across the city. The first is the trail, in shattered trees, of Thursday's storm. The second is a tag by an artist named Momo, in 8 miles of orange paint drawn along sidewalks in lower Manhattan four years ago.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Stepping out

Hey, have I told you I'm going to Nepal next month? Strange but true!

In a snap

Some local damage from what the National Weather Service confirms was a storm with two tornadoes and a macroburst:

Fallen trees and traffic lights (and texting cyclists) at Grand Army Plaza.

One of the mulberries in the Community Garden.

Fallen branch at Grand Army Plaza.

This tree at Vanderbilt and Prospect Place lost most of its branches.

That tree toppled on Plaza Street East.

What's left of the tree in front of our building.

In front of the supermarket on Vanderbilt.

The end.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Good thing friends let me know what to expect by phone message and text, because while I was in boring meetings in Manhattan, a tornado-like storm barraged through Brooklyn. I'll get better pictures (and see the apparently very widespread damage) tomorrow, but here's an impression of what greeted me on the walk from Grand Army Plaza home. This tree on Vanderbilt was simply snapped off by the wind.
I've no picture of the tree in front of our building, as most of it's gone.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Good news from Gainesville

It's mighty discouraging to see how quickly bad news, even fake news, travels, and gets reported again and again and again, while good news gets at most one chance to be noticed. Case in point. An ignorant and self-appointed religious leader in Gainesville, Florida, leader of a small conventicle of like-minded losers, thought he'd get publicity by encouraging people to burn the holy book of Islam on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately he was right. The US didn't pay much attention, but the Muslim world has been hearing about it for weeks. In the end, after a media apotheosis and appeals from the President of the United States and military leaders, he desisted - though he reserves the right to resume his crusade. His tiresome and disengenuous equivocations came too late to spare the lives of the many people who've been killed and injured in protests about supposed American desecrations of the Qur'an in Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

But forget about him. He's a nobody, though a nobody heard 'round the world. The real news from Gainesville is that, in response to his odious plan, the city of Gainesville officially denounced him. And - far more significantly - leaders of twenty other Gainesville houses of worship read from the Qur'an in their religious services that weekend. This is big.
(Here's one reader at the United Church of Gainesville.) The passage read was Aal 'Imran 3:64, the same passage which forms the center of "A Common Word Between Us and You," the most significant recent ecumenical statement from Islamic leaders: Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).

The inclusion of a text from the Qur'an in the scripture reading in churches (in the South, no less!) was a rare and a beautiful thing. But had I not heard about it from someone at Sunday's interfaith rally, I wouldn't know about it. I've looked in vain for press reports online. Any search for Gainesville/pastor/Qur'an just gives you the thousands of articles on the nobody. (One of the organizers of the Sunday rally sent me a link for one report, on a CNN blog, and others - both from local new sources - about similar readings in Michigan and California.)

It's often alleged (by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens especially) that religious moderates are to blame for not condemning extremists. But when they do - and they do, all the time - nobody listens. (Have you heard of "A Common Word..."?) Given the hoopla about the nobody's hairbrained scheme, even if a report of these Qur'an readings in churches did appear, it would merely seem the exception that proves the rule. Sigh.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stress throughout the school year

A handy hand-out from one of our student support professionals.
I wonder what a faculty version would look like?
(Of course, who'd have time to work it out!)

Monday, September 13, 2010

It's time

As I was walking to school today, a man stood in the sky! Every building in Manhattan gets sheathed in scaffolding periodically for cleaning, etc. It's the turn of the Jefferson Market Public Library, the architectural landmark of our part of Green- wich Village, an edifice you know well. It looked death-defying.

Liberty walks

So, about the inspiring speeches at Liberty Walk: An Interfaith Rally for Religious Freedom. I'm not going to recap everything we heard, just some highlights. (And read to the end, as I'm saving the best for last, though it happened first.)

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanovsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed recited the lines from the 23rd Psalm about going through the valley of the shadow of death and yet not being afraid your You are with me: here, so close by Ground Zero, we really are in the valley of the shadow of death. And yet we fear not. Like the Psalm, the Constitution ('which does not stop at Canal Street" - applause!) is not afraid by confident and wise, and an inspiration to us as "we labor to bring warmth to a cold city." He mentioned that this was a day when many Jews fast, in memory of a political assassination 2600 years ago by an extremist who was afraid, not confident, not wise.

Frank Fredericks, one of the 24-year-old organizers, identified himself as a born-again Christian, a small town conservative. It's not everyday someone like him gets together with a rabbinical student in a Catholic church to lend support to a Muslim center, he quipped! But it is time for "a conversation we never had after 9/11," a conversation about Muslims' place in America - they should be welcomed like every other group, for "religious freedom isn't just a constitutional right but the ethos of America." The interfaith movement has aimed too low, focusing on mere tolerance, policy and photo-ops rather than engaging popular, non-academic and younger audiences. Young people, you are not the future; you are the now.

Charles Wolf, a 9/11 widower, a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Republican and an Episcopalian, lampooned the "manufactured controversy" about Park51 through an elaborate analogy with "The Music Man." He deplored the way a project welcomed by all at the time it was proposed had been politicized by the "far right," but also tried to understand how Cheney types have been able to succeed in this politicization, starting with the general ignorance of Islam in most of the US. His own grief was folded delicately into it: as the anniversary of the attacks approaches each year, families of the victims become anxious and sensitive. It's shameful to play on this sensitivity as the controversy manufacturers have.

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, part of the Muslim wing of an African American family of both Christians and Muslims, invoked the memory of Harry Belafonte, who was inspired by Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, in turn drew strength from the examples of Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Abolition was the original interfaith movement! And to those who say you can't build a mosque somewhere, he recalled the words of Prophet Muhammad: the earth is a mosque. So pray everywhere!

Joshua Stanton, the other organizer (the rabbinical student), told of his grandmother. In her nineties, she still remembers a time when she was girl, living very near to where we all were. A mob passed through the street below shouting "Death to the Jews!" Doors were bolted and windows shuttered, and nobody was hurt, but the memory stays with her to this day. Many of us are here because of experiences of being bullied for our beliefs, he said, but all of us are here for our faith in America.

The Reverent Katharine Henderson, President of Auburn Theological Seminar wrapped up, invoking her own grandparents - her father saw an African American man dragged behind a truck until he was dead, and her mother (in the church with us!) had marched in the Civil Rights movement - and added to "pray everywhere" her own tradition's "pray without ceasing!" And she recalled the "unity, compassion, the sweetness" of the time after 9/11 in New York, when was concerned about and wanted to learn about others. Could we bring that back?

Finally, the words that most moved me, Father Kevin Madigan's opening remarks, as he welcomed us to his church, St. Peter's. Only just reopened after an extended period of restoration, made necessary on 9/11 when an engine from an exploding aircraft crashed through its ceiling (another engine from the same craft destroyed the roof of the building where Park51 is planned), St. Peter's is the city's oldest Catholic church. He's noticed in the anti-Islamic frenzy the same sorts of arguments that were made against Catholics long ago right in this very part of town - and not so long ago. There followed an exquisite chain of parallels. Just last week was the fiftieth anniversary of a meeting between presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and skeptics from Protestant Seminaries, he told us. At Notre Dame, the anniversary had been marked by a talk called something like "Why did it matter that JFK was Catholic?" At this very moment, he continued, a young Muhammad or Fatima may be dreaming of becoming president. Perhaps in years to come she or he will have to face some analog to the seminaries. But a few decades after that, they'll be saying "Why did it matter...?"

Together, these wonderful talks gave a real sense of the interfaith struggle in place and time - both long-term and right-here-right-now. We are the now, a now in a place with a long history of interfaith encounters (happy and unhappy). A now already big (as Leibniz said in the Monadology) with the future. Feel the momentum!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Interfaith feast

I'm a bit under the weather (fluesy) so a full report will have to wait until tomorrow, but today's Liberty Walk Interfaith Rally for Religious Freedom was really great. Organized by two 24-year-olds, a rabbinical student and a born again Christian, it met in the oldest Catholic church in the City, just next to Ground Zero. (In fact St. Peter's just reopened yesterday, after renovations necessitated by damage from an engine from one of the 9/11 planes; another engine from the same plane punctured the roof of the Burlington Coat Factory on Park Place, where Park51 will now rise.) A diverse crowd, in terms of age as well as faith, and powerful speakers. The march, huddled under umbrellas with little American flags, was a bit of a bummer... until the end when patriotic songs rose from the sea of umbrellas. As we sang "My country 'tis of thee" I noticed a woman near me wearing a teeshirt with the logo above on it. It all fit together!

Saturday, September 11, 2010


At the Brooklyn farmer's market this morning, I decided that looking for the perfect red round tomato in September was missing the point. As a way of participating in the passing of time by eating local and seasonal, these Hundertwasserian beauties offer more.

Though we'll see how they taste... They aren't just to look at, like leaves!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tricks of memory

You might recall that last year (in fact on this very day), I prodded the standard narrative of the origins of The New School. The image of Founding fathers of a new university for social science should be amended to Founders of a new school for social research. We were a more counter-cultural (and anti-university) institution than we recall, and from the start our leadership included women. You might remember also that this inspired my colleague A to put up pictures of Emily James Putnam and Clara Mayer at the conference inaugurating the new Gender Studies Program. (Their portraits flanked the recent teach-in, too.)

The recovery of the memory of these forgotten women also led A to write a lovely essay reflecting on the difficulties of memory, "Exiles from Utopia: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Making of The Feminist Memoir Project," which will be published next month. A was co-editor of the Feminist Memoir Project in 1999, but much of the essay is about her discovery - after 24 years of work for gender studies in the university - that women had been so important, but their contributions forgotten. Why are some remembered, others not? Can it shed light on the way the women's movement gets forgotten, even by later iterations of it?

What were the motors for forgetting what women do? Feminists seem to start from scratch every other generation, a pattern we could trace in Western history since the story of feminism began in the Enlightenment. (142)

It happens that last year's Orientation speech - the account of our founding fathers, etc., etc., which inspired or provoked me to try to set the record straight - was delivered by B, a psychologist who works on "collective memory," and a friend of A's. She asked B why he thought the school's collective memory had formed the way it did. He has found that some things are "sticky" - they get remembered. Most things aren't. In the case of the history of the women's movement, anti-feminist stereotypes (ugly, bra-burning, man-hating, child-murdering, hairy, lesbians, 152) seem stickier than the movement itself.

[B] suggested to me that the disparity between the memory of the extraordinary social transformations arising from and parallel to the movement and the negative image of the horrible, miserable feminist arises from the movement’s failure to promise happiness, a story with a readable ending. Feminist narratives are internally contradictory, diverse, reactive, unsettling, unclear. Feminists want a different world but have usually distrusted the closure of unity or happy endings. Though vital struggles continue, there is no beloved community once one has left the original commune of the seventies sisterhood. (152)

A considers other ways in which the women's movement has been unsticky - few photos were taken, and in interviews nobody claimed to be a leader.

Women are more forgotten than men, but feminists are suspicious of the ways in which men have achieved stickiness. The male narrative of creation and centrality and glory and autonomy is a story which feminism challenges at its root. Is there another form for remembering? [B] tells me he thinks not, and I see no reason to dispute his conclusions. His research demonstrates that human beings remember badly: they need the help of simplification, the motive of self-serving teleologies, the false unity of sharing a story with the tribe. (153)

This is profound stuff, and troubling. Not just feminism but the ideals The New School set out to promote - social engagement, academic freedom, liberal democracy, etc. - seem to lack the requisite stickiness, too. No wonder we end up with a foundational narrative from the same cookie cutter as more traditional universities: founder heroes (men) whose timeless vision continues to inspire to this day. (One of Emily James Putnam's contributions to the founding institution was to insist that the school offer no tenure, and constantly change its faculty.)

Feminists now living have an understandable attachment to the bodily, animated particulars of their movement experiences. It is bound to be galling to discover that, in the usual course of things, these treasured, specific memories are not only as evanescent as foam but also, on
their way out, subject to a sort of patronizing diminishment reserved for women’s efforts to enter history. There is always the personal question of how to survive being forgotten or aggressively misunder- stood. Inevitably, with longevity or luck, one outlives one’s formative moment. In the case of those who were a part of ecstatic, hopeful, utopian movements, this common tragedy of the mismatch between an individual’s life and the arc of history is likely to be particularly acute. For them, forgetting goes beyond personal loss to the loss of a whole world.
But one step beyond these feelings, that one’s acts and words of protest have been specially chosen for neglect and insult, lies another, more reliable experience feminists share: in modernity, feminism keeps returning. Though obscurity and abuse dog feminism, self-conscious feminist struggles are constantly finding new forms. Even if each return is greeted as if it were for the first time – the New Woman again and again – still, she keeps coming. (155)
It's seems a bitter truth. Some of the most profound changes in history are ushered in by people who are likely to be forgotten - because of the very kinds of change they promote. Of course, this doesn't mean we can't try to find ways to remember them. Reflecting on memory itself, as B and A do, helps too.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


A delightful cross-section of the subway and the life it contains by Carlo Stanga, currently on posters in the subway. Commissioned to celebrate 25 years of subway arts, it apparently contains images of many past subway posters. Worlds within worlds!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


The First Year Program's teach-in series started last night, with a real teach-in - brief presentations by students, activists, faculty, etc. on gender studies at The New School. A, my colleague, and the director of the gender studies program, planned the evening with a powerful emotional arc. First two sophomores described various organizing efforts, difficult in a school with so little sense of shared community, also because our seminar pedagogy so divides us up that it's hard to notice larger trends in student experience. Then an eloquent but jaded senior spoke of the pervasiveness of sexual assault and stalking even here (college students are at much greater risk than the general population) and chronicled several years of trying without success to mobilize sustained response among students: "will you do something about it," she almost pleaded with the assembled students. From this nadir of dejection and exhaustion, the remaining speakers - a professor and two graduate students - offered ways of responding, taking their class concerns into the larger community, "reallocating resources" and "reclaiming public spaces," understanding that "feminism is not about content but about how you approach something," and - last but not least "research as a form of activism." This last was the motto of the graduate students, who had conducted a survey and study around the school's absence of a maternity leave policy. By the end, it seemed there were many things one might do, starting right here, both academic and activist; one ended up empowered and energized.

The first-year events were given the name "teach-in" by last year's dean, who liked the ethos of the 1960s. I was skeptical: teach-ins should be spontaneous responses to current events, not planned in advance. But this one managed to be both. Pretty strong medicine for the second week of classes, no doubt, but a reminder that what we do isn't "just academic" - even the academic stuff.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

That time again

The Tribute in Light, seen from our roof in Brooklyn. Of course, you used to be able to see the Twin Towers from here.

Zero to sixty

In just an hour this afternoon, my schedule for the rest of the year filled up. I exaggerate, a little. It was the first meeting of the Chairs & Directors for the new academic year. We learned that, on top of what we already do (monitoring ongoing classes, scheduling new ones, hiring and mentoring and reviewing faculty, shepherding majors and nonmajors, etc.), we're introducing a number of time-consuming procedures to codify and make explicit the learning goals of all programs and courses - including aligning current courses to new standards of student workload (reading, writing, etc.), variegated by course-level and contact-hours - and to find ways of determining that these outcomes are achieved. This is the way the wind's been blowing in higher education for a while (I remember a Theater of the Oppressed skit at ATHE in 2008 where people were haunted and hounded by the phrase quantifiable learning outcomes!). Perhaps it was just a matter of time before we were infected... But now we get to do it all at once, in preparation for the incoming new university president (who is said to loves "data") and for the Middle States accreditation review coming up in three years. And most of it, it seems, this semester, the same one in which we put together the 2011-2012 curriculum! On top of that, it's my turn to be on the reviews and promotion committee. With all the codifying, tabulating, reviewing going on, it's a wonder any teaching gets done at all any more! (Fear not students, I'm here for you.)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Late summer.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Tippett point

You may know that "Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett" is a great aggravation to me. Tippett interviews amazing people, who say profound and illuminating things. Her radio program, which has spawned podcasts, web communities and books, has done much to enrich discussion of "religion, meaning, ethics and ideas."

But Tippett herself grates on me. She seems to me to cut her interviewees off as they get really interesting, to offer banal paraphrases and superficial comparative equations. A review of her book Speaking of Faith in "Books & Culture" nailed it for me last year: her radio series requires never coming to the point of commitment, so her voice becomes the voice of an aesthetic searching unwilling to find or be found. (The review is more personal: she thinks it's Tippett, not just the requirements of radio hosting.) But perhaps that's the service Tippett renders, allowing her listeners opportunities for commitment by forgoing it herself, at least in her radio persona.

In any case, "Speaking of Faith" will soon be no more. A new name is on the horizon which makes me woozy: "Krista Tippett on Being." Lordy. On the series website Tippett writes that she was initially not that enthusiastic about the new title (not her idea, clearly), although it had become clear that the old name put some people off - "faith" is a trigger-word for many. But "Being"? (It's not clear if it's capitalized or not.) On reflection she finds

it feels like home. “Being” is an elemental, essential word. It was a catchword of the existentialism of the 20th century, and existentialism is making room for spiritual life in the 21st. It is more hospitable than the word “faith” for our non-Christian and non-religious listeners. It is, at the same time, an evocation of the primary biblical name of God. “I am who I am” can be better translated, I recall my teacher of Hebrew pointing out, as “I will be who I will be.”

Perhaps. (The mid-century Protestant framework of Tippett's approach is certainly clear.) To me, "Being" is a scarier, less compromising word. It may describe what religiously committed people experience, but it's unwieldy and inflexible. If it seems less threatening, that's because it's flattened into something banal and inert which, incidentally, makes conversation idle. My "Books & Culture" worry grows here, too. The interlocutors - those who have committed to a particular relationship to Being - have disappeared from the title of the show. Instead of "Speaking of," which points to them or at least (or also) to the dialogue, we get "Krista Tippett on." She's the source now, not just the conduit. Medium has become message.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Street scenes

Always something going on in the city, usually in proximity to something completely different!
The one on the left went out of business.
One of the city's few painted murals gets updated.
Tall skinny buildings on Broadway in NoHo.
Bus tourists oblivious of caryatids.
And a hijab-clad student on the front of my local supermarket.