Monday, February 28, 2011

Out of nothing

This is one of the most famous poles in the study of religion, the kauwa-auwa of the Achilpa (an Arrernte group) of Central Australia. Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen mention it in passing in their very copious The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People (1927), where it caught the eye of Mircea Eliade. Primed by the insights of comparative study, Eliade had his eye out for anything like an axis mundi, the paradigmatic hierophany which forges a link with the transcendent, providing existential orientation to people lost in the "chaos of homogeneity and relativity." To find one among the "archaic" Australian Aborigines would validate the universality of his theory of religion.
In The Arunta, we read of Achilpa ancestors wandering and wandering, encountering various peoples whom they ignore, circumcise, have sex with, and/or have ceremonies with, usually leaving one of their number behind when they move on. They break up into four groups which wander on until eventually each dies. One group was carrying along a kauaua, something we'd read about much earlier, before the wanderings began: after creating the land and its denizens, the ur-ancestor Numbakulla had made his exit by climbing up a kauwa-auwa he'd covered in blood; the Achilpa he bade follow couldn't because he kept slipping, so Numbakulla went on alone, drew the pole up after him and was never seen again (360).

Back to the wanderers: one day an accident befell them which made them all feel very sad: an old man accidentally broke the pole off just above the ground where it had been implanted. They were already on their last legs, having lost members of their group at every recent stop to disease. They were just surviving on infusions of each other's blood. This was the straw which broke the camel's back. When next they encountered a thriving group of ancestors our protagonists gave up: They were too tired and sad to paint themselves, their Kauaua in its broken state was inferior to many of those which the Unjiamba people had, so they did not erect it, but, lying down together, died where they lay. A large hill, covered with big stones, arose to mark the spot. (388)

[They're group iii, and end at Unjiacherta. Can you find them?]

Eliade uses the story prominently in his discussion of "Sacred Space and Making the World Sacred" in The Sacred and the Profane, and glosses it: Life is not possible without an opening to the transcendent (34). Some years later, in a book on Aboriginal religions, he tells the story again, and concludes: Seldom do we find a more pathetic avowal that man cannot live without a "sacred center" which permits him both to "cosmicize" space and to communicate with the transhuman world of heaven. So long as they had their kauwa-auwa, the Achilpa Ancestors were never lost in the surrounding "chaos." Moreover, the sacred pole was for them the proof par excellence of Numbakulla's existence and activity. (53)

It's a powerful story, but, it turns out, almost completely concocted: for starters, Numbakulla's not mentioned in the story of the breaking pole! ("Concocted" is a term from Sam Gill, who was so incensed by the evident plantedness of Numbakulla's pole that he wrote a whole book about it.) In class today we read the chapters in The Arunta to which Eliade refers, and tried to understand what Eliade was up to. I'm not entirely sure quite why, but I defended him - tongue of course firmly in cheek, though students don't always notice: Eliade thought he could see farther than Spencer and Gillen. What seemed an unimportant detail to them loomed large for him because his decades of work in the comparative study of religion had taught him what the sacred looks like. His construction also made a teleological whole of what in Spencer and Gillen's account otherwise seemed no more than aimless rambling.
Of course we know, as neither Eliade nor his sources could even imagine, that there's nothing aimless in the world of hunter-gatherers, and no rambling along story tracks. The Arrernte world is fully and completely horizontal, no axis mundi required, thank you very much! But it's useful for us to figure this out, since the presumption that religion is about transcendent creators and vertical solutions to the existential problems of the horizontal is part of our own cultural inheritance. (Gill actually shows that Numbakulla was already concocted before Eliade shone his spotlight on him. Spencer conflated various things he fudged from field notes and wishful thinking to generate a cosmic creator out of a mere ritual ancestor whose name is but the nominalization of an adjective, ungambikula, which means "jump up of themselves" or "out of nothing" and referred to fly-catching lizard ancestors (13).)

It was actually quite fun to excavate in Eliade and then in the Spencer and Gillen text, peeling away their structuring assumptions and distortions and finding what seemed like evidence for the dynamic land-based kinship-related understanding of Aboriginal religion we've been getting from more recent work! But things really got interesting when we looked at some of the things Eliade had ignored, like the stories of incest and cannibalism that had floated the boat of fellow Spencer and Gillen fan Sigmund Freud. And then a student drew our attention to a cameo of the old canard that Aboriginal people were somehow unaware of the connection between sex and pregnancy:From it dangles this remarkable footnote, which proved the trigger for a veritable landslide of postcolonial deconstruction: It must, of course, be remembered that this expresses the primitive belief of the natives before the advent of the white man and half-castes. (363)

Mircea Eliade, Australian Religions: An Introduction (Cornell 1973)
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1987)
Sam D. Gill, Storytracking: Texts, Stories & Histories in Central Australia (OUP 1998)
Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People (1927, rpt. Anthropological Publications 1966) - also where all the images are from

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Here comes Spring!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The liberty tree vs. duration

I saw the Metropolitan Opera's production of John Adams' "Nixon in China" not quite a fortnight ago. Somewhat to my surprise I found it very moving (though less at the finish than at the start), and bought myself a recording of the premiere production from 1987. The work's rhythms and strange haunting melodies have been following me ever since. One moment, from the scene in the aging Chairman Mao's study (Act 1, Scene 2), has not let me be for days, perhaps because we are living its world-historical questions again. It's the first 3 minutes on this clip from 1987:

Here's the libretto by Alice Goodman:

You've said
That there's a certain well-known tree
That grows from nothing in a day,
Lives only as a sapling, dies
Just at its prime, when good men raise
It as their idol.

Not the cross?

The Liberty Tree. Let it pass.
It was a riddle, not a test.
The revolution will not last.
It is duration - the regime
Survives in that, and not in time.
While it is young in us it lives;
We can save it, it never saves.

And yours will last a thousand years.

(Chou: Sanford Sylvan - Nixon: James Maddalena - Mao: John Duykers)

Friday, February 25, 2011

History in the making

While we putter around over here, it's 1989 (or 1848?) in North Africa. It's epic. Everything could change. May it happen peacefully.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

View from the mountaintop

Until I heard my brilliant colleague Fran Snyder say this at an interfaith program tonight, I'd never realized: "The only person who dies in the akedah [the story of the binding of Isaac] is Sarah." This is one of the insights of the midrash, which notices that Sarah disappears from the story at the point where Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, and the next thing we hear of her is that she dies. Sure, an advanced age is given, but the rabbis don't let the numbers get in the way, any more than we should be taken in by the late addition of chapters (her death is Gen 23:1 but unconnected to what follows). Like Kierkegaard later, they can't imagine how Isaac and his father will return and continue their lives as before; they can't imagine their telling Sarah - or not telling her. Instead, they find a variety of creative ways of having Sarah's death result from the (non-)event on Moriah. In one, the adversary (satan) appears to her in the guise of Isaac right after the sacrifice is interrupted and tells her what happened. She kills herself.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


We finished the first section of the Aboriginal Australia course today, with a screening of Kim McKenzie's 1980 film, "Waiting for Harry." It records the (third and final) funeral of an Anbarra elder on a beach in Arnhem Land, and in just an hour manages to capture the joy, complexity and the longueur of the process. Many people from many clans gather for the ceremony, but various parts of it can only be performed by particular people - for instance: each animal on the hollow log coffin can only be painted by someone who owns that image, possibly managed by his sister's son. This includes some island people who speak a different language and have only a trading relationship with the Anbarra, and the dead man's sister's son Harry, who is hard to find. By the time it finishes, and we see nothing but the painted coffin upright in a sand-sculpture on an abandoned beach, we have seen the remarkable interweavings of kinship, Dreaming performances (painted, sung, danced) and contingency which constitute Yolngu tradition. I hope the class recognized a lot of what was going on, and noticed that they were recognizing it.

Our journey through Yolngu traditions has taken a rather quixotic course. We began with the film "Ten Canoes," then read the study guide to it prepared for Australian schools, and watched the making-of docco "The Balanda and the Bark Canoes." There followed three essays about the film, two by a historian of material culture (here's one) and the third by an important film critic, and another film shot in the same environs with some of the same people performing, but in every other respect different: "Crocodile Dreaming" is the work of an Aboriginal (though not Yolngu) film-maker, and uses genre conventions of horror films rather than documentaries. We finished with accounts of Yolngu ethnography, religion and funerary culture by anthropologist Howard Morphy, paired with the website "12 Canoes," an analysis of Aboriginal kinship systems (Walbiri rather than Yolngu but similar in important respects) from an ethnomathematics textbook, and, finally, "Waiting for Harry."

Reviewing these today (the most media-heavy teaching I've ever done, let alone the most media-reflective), I explained why we'd not started with Morphy's masterful ethnographic overview (something a few of the students had said they wished we'd done). I told them I wanted them to have an experience more like immersion, and also wanted them to have to wrestle with issues of representation, collaboration, authenticity and indigenous reinvention without the easy comfort of a road map, a master plan, an objective scholarly analysis and synthesis. My sense is that climbing around in the tree of which "Ten Canoes" is a twig gives a more authentic picture of the ongoing vitality of Aboriginal traditions, and of the challenges facing Aboriginal communities today.

Our next section's on "storytracking" representations of Australian Aboriginal religion in western theories of religion - more familiar turf for me, though who knows, after this sojourn among the Yolngu, it may seem unfamiliar, too!
Image: a Yirrkala bark painting representing ganma,
the coming together of sweetwater and saltwater rivers,
and a metaphor for intercultural understanding in Australia. (Source)

Monday, February 21, 2011

In their retro comics style the brilliant RSA Animators illustrate a talk by David Harvey about the crisis of capitalism. See it happen here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dangerous bore

Remember our old friend Job? He crops up everywhere! Here's a midrash where the rabbis are trading interpretations of Levitucus 2:3-4: "If a soul shall sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which ought not to be done, and shall do against any of them: / If the priest that is anointed do sin according to the sin of the people; then let him bring for his sin ... a sin offering."
It is, needless to say, neither the first nor the last proffered interpretation. One of the striking fables which make midrash so rich, the story of the ship-borer is also interesting for the several things it suggests about the nature and dangers of Job's protests to God - and for the way it seems to imply that this part of Job, at least, may represent a danger to Israel.
Midrash Rabbah - Leviticus,
trans. J. Israelstam & Judah J. Slotki (London: The Soncino Press, 1983), 55

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Balanda painting bark

It's taken a while, but I've finally got myself an iPad. It'll do a fantastic job of bringing images into my classroom - like this Yirrkala bark painting of "Spring, Underground Rivers, and Tracks" on display in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History, gift of Ronald Berndt. (I must confess, it also does a great HD version of Angry Birds.)

Friday, February 18, 2011


On a bit of a lark I ordered myself Timothy Beal's fresh-off-the-press and provocatively titled The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). So far, I'm having fun!

Beal's a Biblical scholar with an interest also in the cultural history of religion in America. He was raised conservative Evangelical and still teaches Sunday school, though not at an Evangelical church. (His wife ministers here.) This allows him to survey the world of evangelical Bible publishing - the world of "values added" paraphrases, Biblezines and niche Bibles - critically but sympathetically as part of a Biblical media history going back to Tatian's Diatesseron (103), which predated the canon and bookmaking capable of making "the Bible" by two centuries! People seek, and publishers provide, that feeling of Bibleness (50) which the Bible as cultural icon leads them to expect - unambiguous answers to questions about how to live - but since the Bible itself offers no such thing, their selling down the sacred capital of the Bible as the Book (76) is no tragedy, but rather an opportunity for us to rediscover it.

The life of faith can often feel like wandering in the wilderness, as it was for the Hebrew people after the exodus. Where are we? Where are we going? Where is God in all this? Are we going to be abandoned out here? In response to the anxieties of the Hebrews, weary of insecure, day-to-day uncertainty, Aaron fashioned a golden calf. "Behold your god," he declared, offering them something solid in place of Moses's God, whose presence with them was not often easy to discern or even trust. The idea of the Bible as a divine guidebook, a map for getting through the terra incognita of life, is our golden calf. It's a substitute for the wilderness wandering that the life of faith necessarily entails. And the Bible business is selling it for all it's worth. "Behold your god": that is, God's Word made flesh, bound between two covers, incarnation by publication. No more guessing. No more wondering. No more wandering. (84)

But also: I see no ill intentions among Bible-publishing companies, any more than I do in Aaron. (85) They mean well, and their selling out of the Book actually is all for the best. The collapse of the idol of The Book opens up new avenues to an encounter with the tradition which made do without a single fixed book for much of its history. "It's the end of the Word as we know it," Beal sings, "and I feel fine."

cont'd, 21/2: After a fascinating jaunt through the history of the Bible, in which there is never a single authorized text and where someone is always producing an alternate or rival version, Beal suggests that we're better off seeing the Bible as a library of questions - one with new wings and annexes added as new interpretations and creative works inspired or otherwise provoked by the Bible emerge (188). Indeed, the tendencies which produced all those rival Bibles aren't necessarily a problem. Not if we give up the myth of a single authoritative, univocal, accessible, comprehensive, exclusive thing which closes the book on questions about the meaning and purpose of life (4-6) and accept that the Bible has always been interpretation all the way down (101).

So the future is bright: scriptural culture after the book may have much in common with scriptural culture before the book (190). Now, as then, we have a decentralized network of communities with different collections of texts, in each of which scripture is fulfilled, filled out through new interpretation in community - what he argues Jesus was already doing in the temple in Luke 4:16-21 (96). It makes for a delicious account of a living tradition of questioning and community. At the end Beal takes the familiar account of religion's two possibilities as seen in the etymologies religare (re-bind) and relegere (re-read), spices it with an allusion to Leonard Cohen's famous line "there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in," and arrives at a delightful vision of faith after the end of the book:

The religious life is a communal practice of reading again, and opening the Bible in ways that crack its binding, so to speak, and open it to new understandings, new interpretations
. (185)


Meanwhile, store closings continue apace. Borders, the last national chain selling only books, has filed for bankruptcy. After closings and reopenings, Jefferson Market's shut for good. Shops around the corner from where I live (notably two corner stores) are empty. Around school there are papered over shops, too, like this one - a deli (the Chemists sign is from its earlier life) closing because its customers came from St. Vincent's Hospital, which shut its doors last year.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What kind of life?

Had the class respond to Frances Kissling's thought experiment this morning. Very interesting results! (It makes a big difference to demand not just a first reaction but five - you really see how thoughts or reactions unfold, check, correct, calibrate - including your own. Try it yourself!) Some of the responses:

Sounds like the dystopia of "Brave New World" / the world of designer babies / would only rich people have access? / this or something like this seems inevitable as medicine finds safer, painfree ways of doing things / we'll have to get used to it

Would take the air out of prolife/prochoice debates / who would pay for it? / society might worsen if some of these children go unclaimed / we already have problems with foster care / would procreation be rendered obsolete?

Creepy in a make-your-own-baby way / sounds expensive / class dimensions, including stigma for people who couldn't afford it? / would abortion still be an option? / would lead to overpopulation (we already can't find jobs for people)

There'd be conflicts between claims to ownership of biological and adoptive mothers / could one really find responsible parents? / how is system regulated / what about fetuses with serious diseases, might some give these fetuses away, and can one expect new parents to take them on / seems to go against the natural order / but also would cause overpopulation

Would the families which gave fetuses away not be affected? / too great a burden on foster care system / would religious organizations step in? / attitudes towards sex and contraception would change / how late in a pregnancy could this happen?

Sounds like "The Matrix" / anything described as "risk-free and pain-free" makes me uncomfortable / just what problem is it supposed to be solving? / at what stage does care in the "non-uterine environment" end: when are you kicked out?

Nobody had the initial reaction of relief or even joy that the fetus lives which Kissling hopes for. (Why are we so cynical, asked one student? I said I didn't think it wass cynicism, but rather awareness of the difficulty of ensuring a good life for someone; indeed, I heard much awareness of the value and fragility of caring relationships.) But it's a really interesting set of questions and concerns. It names many of the reasons our culture accepts that there are times when termination of an unborn life may be appropriate, along with other uneasinesses about the technologization of reproduction.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Valuing the priceless

Strange to encounter, just as I'm rereading the first chapter of Evangelium Vitae for "Exploring Religious Ethics," this article about the pseudo-scientific determinations of the value of a human life among regulatory agencies of the U. S. Government. They don't just vary with time and how friendly the political party in power is with the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, but between different government agencies!
One might take this as confirmation that no ultimate value can, in the end be given for something like a human life: something irreplaceable can't really have a value in the standard sense, can it? But it would be a pity if one therefore abandoned the effort to insert the human cost into various economic calculations which would, without such efforts, cause foreseeable and preventable harm. Does it make us more or less human to essay a price in such cases? In the longer term is it more likely to humanize capitalism or to undermine the capacity even to imagine the irreplaceable? Old questions, but still important ones...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Forms of life

In "Exploring Religious Ethics," we're in the middle of abortion week. We started with William LaFleur and Helen Hardacre on the practice of mizuko kuyô in Japan (with a little aside on Jeff Wilson's account of its career in America). On Thursday we'll read part of "Evangelium Vitae," an articulation of Pope John Paul II's concept of "cultures of life" and of "death," and Catholics for Choice founder Frances Kissling's well-known essay "Is There Life After Roe? How to Think About the Fetus." Heavy stuff, and pushing the limits of my pay-grade. (None of my students recalled candidate Obama's use of "beyond my pay-grade" in response to a loaded question about abortion from Rick Warren during the 2008 campaign).

Kissling (below) describes a surprisingly interesting thought experiment she's presented to people - surprisingly interesting because it evidently produced quite different (and to me quite unexpected) responses among pro-choice and pro-life folks (whom she calls "antiabortionists").

Imagine a world in which it was possible to remove fetuses prior to viability from women’s bodies and allow them to develop in a nonuterine environ- ment. Perhaps they could be implanted in men or other women who want them; perhaps they could develop in a specially equipped nursery? In this world, medicine is so far advanced that this could be accomplished painlessly and without risking the health of either the woman or the fetus. Of course, this is at present largely a fantasy and by that time we would have found the ideal, risk-free, failure-free contraceptive; but let’s pretend.

What are the first five concerns and reactions that come to your mind? Is one of them the fact that this would mean fetuses need not die? My own experience in presenting this option to both advocates and opponents of abortion is that the fetus’s life is rarely a consideration. Among the most interesting reactions of those who are prochoice is a concern that some women might find the continued existence of the fetus painful for them or that women have a right to ensure that their genetic material does not enter the world. Abortion in this sense becomes the guarantee of a dead fetus, if desired, rather than the removal of the fetus from an unwilling host, the woman. To even offer women such an option is, some think, cruel. For some the right to choose abortion seems to include the right to be protected from thinking about the fetus and from any pain that might result from others talking about the fetus in value-laden terms. In this construct, it is hard to identify any value fetal life might have....

The reaction of antiabortionists to the idea that a fetus could be removed from the body of an unwilling woman is as troubling. Again, one rarely hears cries of joy that fetal lives would be saved. The focus also is on the woman. But here, the view that women are, by their nature, made for childbearing dominates. Women have an obligation to continue pregnancies, to suffer the consequences of their sexuality. It is unnatural to even think that fetuses could become healthy and happy people if they did not spend nine months in the womb of a woman. One is led to believe that, for those opposed to abortion, it is not saving fetuses that matters but preserving a social construct in which women breed. (source; pic)

What does it say that my first thought was that the fetus would not die?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Desert deluge

Wonder what's happened to all that water from last month's Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi? Much will find its way to one ocean or another, but for now a lot is in the desert. These images from The Australian.

水子供養 comes to America

I'm in the middle of a fantastic recent book which tells how the practice of mizuko kuyô (水子供養) - a quasi-Buddhist Japanese rite to memorialize children who were born dead, whether by tragic accident or design - has come to America: Jeff Wilson's Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (OUP 2008). I've taught about mizuko kuyô for a while (in Exploring Religious Ethics). Images of rows (sometimes veritable legions) of stone-carved statues of the bodhisattva Jizô (地蔵菩薩) in Japan are striking, especially when the figures - which resemble a child as well as the bodhisattva - have been garlanded with caps, capes, and toys. As Helen Hardacre has shown, the practice is in fact of very recent vintage, and driven less by tenderness than by media-stoked terror of tatari (祟り), the angry revenge of the aborted, who demand costly propitiation. But it is hard for an American to learn of mizuko kuyô without thinking about our own unresolved views on abortion - and the public invisibility of the unborn. [pic source]

I noticed a few years ago that some American Christians had taken note of the practice and had been impressed by what they saw as its deep humanity in concretizing through ritual the largely unacknowledged emotions surrounding abortion. But I didn't know that mizuko kuyô had already been practiced for years in Japanese-American and American convert Buddhist traditions (including, prominently, Zen - the figures above are made at Great Vow Monastery), nor that mizuko kuyô-inspired rituals have indeed emerged beyond Buddhism. Wilson's book describes and analyzes the spread and diversification of mizuko kuyô practices in the US, along the way challenging many a scholarly and popular stereotype about Japanese-Americans, Buddhists - and Christians, too.

Take the image below, for instance (p. 120 in Wilson's book), one with which I'm tempted to start my Fall course on "Lived Religion in NYC." It's not in New York but in the Jizô Garden at Great Vow (which is in Clatskanie, Oregon) where people - many of them not Buddhist - participate in a mizuko kuyô offered because No matter how the child dies, suddenly or slowly, whether through illness, sudden infant death, accident, miscarriage, abortion or suicide, our sorrow is deep and may be long-lasting. The ritual begins with acquiring a Jizô statue (perhaps one of those made at the monastery), for which - in the ritual's first stage at the monastery - participants write a message or sew clothing. They then move to the dedicated Jizô Bodhisattva Garden, where the figures are placed with the accoutrements, in a silence full of complex emotions. The figures will remain in the garden, where they may be visited. The accoutrements will slowly rot and become one with the earth.

But you're right:
this isn't a statue of the bodhisattva Jizô. It's a statue of the Virgin Mary - not in her usual blue cloak, but in the red one of a mizuko kuyô ritual.

Can you feel the stereotypes trembling?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Cultures of secrecy

One of the interesting features of many Aboriginal religions is secret or "sacred-secret" knowledge. There is men's knowledge, unknown to women, strangers and to uninitiated boys. Likewise there is clan knowldge, women's knowledge (the heart of the Hindmarsh Island/Kumarangk Bridge affair), etc. It takes a lifetime for someone to come into all the knowledge s/he might have. "Ten Canoes" teaches that patience in waiting for it - living without knowledge you have not yet been given - is a prime virtue of the young and, indeed, of everyone as they make their way through life. And it's exciting to think about - secret rites, secret objects, secret places, secret understandings.

I'm not sure that's what's going on, though. Certainly, there are restricted ceremonies, especially involving initiation, and dangerous names with magical power. But more relevant seems the fact that much ceremony is performed for or at least in the presence of people who don't understand it. It might be designed for misunderstanding, with an exoteric and an esoteric levels. But with time, it seems likely that many who aren't permitted to know something might nevertheless come to understand it. (This explains why the last surviving members of some clans have shared with ethnographers, linguists and historians knowledge far beyond that which they were, when all was still well with their society, allowed to know.)

This is not a problem, as I understand it. It is not a problem because understanding - or even becoming acquainted with - something isn't the point. In Aboriginal cultures, stories, songs, dances, artistic patterns are not things which are known but things which are owned. I have no right to repeat a story I hear, unless the teller (assuming s/he is authorized to tell it in the first place) gives me permission. (Indeed, in Yolngu society at least, there are three kinds of right towards a piece of cultural knowledge: rights of ownership, managerial rights, and rights as guardians.) But that doesn't mean I don't hear it except when authorized to use it. In fact, I suspect most of what you hear and see is stuff you're not entitled to make your own - and that thus much "sacred-secret" knowledge is, in our terms, widely known. "Secrecy" here is not about hiding things where others can't encounter them (and where a secret can be spoiled forever through exposure, even by accident) so much as a system of property (which maintains itself). Meanwhile knowing something is having a responsibility to it - to maintain and not to squander it. And all the while you trust that others, who have rights to things you may or may not know, will discharge their responsibilities to what is theirs (which is really their part of what is all of yours).

The idea of knowing (in our sense) things you have no right to is an intriguing one. In a way it's not that different from being told something in confidence: you can't use - retell - it, as it's not yours to tell. I suppose we all carry around with us secrets of this kind all the time, and that some of them aren't really secret - in the sense of unknown to others - at all. A good person keeps secrets. But is it a good society that needs secrets at all?

I'm part of a culture of secrecy: academia. Peer review, faculty review, searches - all these involve knowing things you can't use. I remember, during my time at Princeton, discovering that people who I thought knew little of me in fact knew a lot about me - all the faculty, I learned once I became one, were tracking the progress of all the graduate students in the department, not just those in their subfield. And the same went for junior faculty, about whom more senior faculty learned things the junior faculty might never learn about themselves. Being on the more senior end now, I sometimes find myself in possession - well, the Yolngu case would suggest, precisely not in possession! - of information about people, sometimes people I know well, which they may never know I know, and some of which they themselves will never know.

This is hard. It's unsettling to consider that others possess [sic] comparable knowledge about me, and actively unpleasant to feel myself bound in confidentiality to other senior people whom I don't like at all. I'm learning that this discomfort is one one can live with, however unhappily. (I'm not talking about possible injustices in review processes, but something more essential to the system.) I see its point in academic life, but have found myself wondering whether the same adjustments are how societies - even or especially unjust societies - survive. How you make and maintain a ruling class not just by shared benefits but by restrictions on speech: like it or no, there are things I can't talk about with people I care about who are below me in the tribal ranking - things they can't even know I can't talk with them about. Meanwhile, I can if I wish talk about all these things freely with others at my level. We may not like each other, but we share much knowledge, and, as importantly, the experience of not being able to share it with people we like more. Willy nilly, affective relationships are being restructured, solidarities shifted, hierarchies embodied.

Is it naive of me in a Habermasian way to think that there must be ways of living with people that don't depend on the powers of embodied secrecy - that transparency in all things (if not perhaps at all times) would make for a better, freer, more fully human society?
(picture source)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Well done

I've mentioned the marvelous website Twelve Canoes which grew out of the film "Ten Canoes." Today we discussed it in class. I'd asked students to explore it, noting what it explains and how it does so - the aesthetics, the structure - and to compare that with the description of Yolngu religious life in an ethnographic study by Howard Morphy. It worked well! In particular, the site enabled me to preface our discussion of wangarr (ancestral beings often described as Dreamings) with three different examples: the giant goanna story at the start of of "Ten Canoes" (which we now realized might be narrated by the wangarr itself), the dog and flying fox story of the "Creation" filmlet in "Twelve Canoes," and the black-headed python story of the visit to "Creation Rock - Dawurra" included as an "extra" to the "Creation" filmlet.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

No news is bad news

Records have been set around the world in the last year in rainfall, snowfall, floods, and mudslides - we know, because storms and inundations are in the news. What about the droughts happening where all that precipitation has not been happening? You hear about them only where they catch fire, which tends to be during record heatwaves - themselves news events. When drought is so severe that there's nothing to burn - in India, in China - there's nothing to report. Or when the Amazon dies tree by tree. Well, we'll have plenty more occasions to learn how to think about drought in the coming years, if the predictions of the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Aiguo Dai, are anywhere near right. The maps below show severe droughts coming to the most settled parts of the world. (Red-purple-white is drought.)
You can see the results animated here.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Protesting too much

Teaching back-to-back classes is a recipe for whiplash. When they're first thing in the morning, it's even worse. Now imagine having to switch from explaining the Lutheran import of Fear and Trembling to one set of groggy students to leading a discussion of Yolngu ceremony with another 20 minutes later? It was a perfect storm. With Kierkegaard I was stressing the view that the individual is of an irreducible but ultimately incommunicable value (unintelligible even to her/himself); the finite faces the absolute alone, even as it receives from it an infinite validation of the value of the finite. Then I had to spell out elder Jimmy Burinyila's critique of "Ten Canoes" for telling the wrong story; what should have been a story of community "gathering and love" was instead a story of men without women, and conflict rather than harmony. And its representation of ceremony only through what appeared to viewers unfamiliar with Yolngu traditions to be a private funeral misrepresented the place of "religion" in Yolngu life in an analogous way (what Religious Studies folks of my generation call a "Protestant" way!) - as if religion were only about individuals and the end of life, and not woven into the everyday living of communities - just as selves are.
(Picture of Jimmy Burinyila from Louise Hamby, "A Question of Time:
Ten Canoes," Australian Journal of Anthropology 18/1 (2007): 123-26, 125)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

One night of Americana

I don't have a TV. I don't follow sports. I haven't had a car since 2001. And I live in barely-American NYC. So watching the Superbowl - and, especially, watching the Superbowl ads - is a trip. OK, so I only watched half (touchdown touchdown yada yada), but that was plenty. (I told my friends I wanted to get home in time to catch the end.) More car commercials, more beer ads, more plugs for disaster movies, more hetero slackers getting the girl or at least the beer than I see in a year. It's kind of fun. And for each couple of lame or shockingly vulgar ones, there's a work of art (Passat/Darth Vader) - or vulgarity raised to the level of art (Doritos brings the dead back). You wouldn't guess the US is in deep crisis, except for a Bud Lite commercial about an oncoming asteroid (even scientists admit it's too late to do anything but party - and then it turns out to have been a false alarm). And, I suppose, the car ad which ends among the ancient Aztecs or Mayas, which is its own version of the Bud Lite ad: extraterrestrials may try to take our cars, but we'll get them back in the end, if only by 2012 magic.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

More canoes

The "Ten Canoes" project has had many wonderful offshoots. One is the website "Twelve Canoes," which features films made by students in Ramingining. Traditions, stories, ceremonies, history, etc. are the subjects. What is especially nice is the way they show the interconnection of different arts. Each segment is framed by - and in a sense narrates - a bark painting, the starting "text," if you will. (The painting at right introduces the section on ceremonies.) Each also leads to shorter videos of a Dreaming site connected to the story or its teller, or to a performance of a song. The living of Yolngu tradition through these interconnected art forms (and landscape) is barely hinted at in "Ten Canoes," so this makes a lovely complement to it.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Did you know that billions of trees died in the Amazon in 2010 because of the record drought there? So many that the Amazon might end up a source rather than a sink of C02? I didn't either. On the other hand, record-breaking weather extremes - hundred year floods and storms and heatwaves, glacier melts and droughts - were happening everywhere else on our little planet (and continue) so it comes as less of a surprise. One doesn't think of the Amazon as vulnerable in this way, though...

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Stories like trees

My "Aboriginal Australia" course began with the film "Ten Canoes," made by Rolf de Heer with the people of the town of Ramingining, and at the invitation of David Gulpilil. Today we watched "The Balanda and the Bark Canoes" - balanda is the Yolngu word for white people - a making-of documentary in which de Heer describes the process as the most difficult of his film-making career, and where we learn that many aspects of the film you'd presumed to be his directorial decisions came instead from his Aboriginal partners. Like the casting, for instance - the Ramingining people insisted that characters be played by people in the same kin groups, and so the whole community was cast by the whole community. We'll be looking at the kinship system - which evidently surprised de Heer, despite his history of working with Aboriginal themes - soon.

Relatedly, it became clear that the people of Ramingining were not "acting" in a "fictional" story but doing something more like ceremonially uniting with their ancestors. My plan with this insight is to stretch it first to include the inventions by which Aboriginal traditions have reinvented themselves in the world the balanda have built around and on top of their world (like using balanda technology, film and film-makers), and then to suggest that reinvention and performance aren't new - desperate if virtuosic responses to the modern challenge - but the stuff of any and every living tradition. (As Stanner insisted, Aboriginal traditions are characterized by constant change as much as by continuity.)

But our discussion today focused more on storytelling. To de Heer's evident chagrin, the people of Ramingining proposed that their film be about a magpie goose egg hunt, a most undramatic thing. He needed a story which would be satisfying for a film audience - presumably with plot and characters, tension and resolution. They wanted none of that: their ancestors are presented as living in a jovial if hard-working harmony. A compromise was finally worked out. The recent ancestors (seen in black and white with a fixed camera, and in large part modeled on photographs taken among the Yolngu in the 1930s by ethnographer Donald Thomson) maintain their harmonious existence in part by telling stories of earlier, mythic ancestors (seen in glorious color with an always mobile camera), in whose time tension, trouble, violence, etc. can happen. Dramatically satisfying stories of conflict don't describe an actual reality, but a real possibility which - precisely through being narrated - is prevented from becoming actuality. For instance, a young character among the recent ancestors learns the value of patience through hearing a story in which rash and ill- considered actions among his mythical ancestors produce unfortunate conse- quences.

So is the didactic story told by the idealized recent ancestors the kind of story Western filmgoers can appreciate? No and yes. Yes, because the film is satisfying; viewers around the world have been entranced. But also no, because the satisfaction is only superficially at seeing a conflict resolved, tension released through catharsis. When you reflect on it, the conflict in question isn't the right kind of conflict. It's a different kind of story, a story (the main narrator says) "like a tree," with many branches - none of which is resolved in the way you might expect, or even fully explained.

The world of this story is the world of a bushy tree of interrelated happenings: inevitable frictions and temptations arising in a human community (not because of differences of personality), compounded by accidents and misjudgments based in part on the multiplicity of ongoing happenings, and ultimately overcome - not without loss - by communal ceremony. The film lets us feel that resolution without quite understanding the kind of resolution it offers; it's more a sense of finality, of closure. Most questions are still unanswered, but this set of disturbances has been put to rest ("this is where we stop," says Birrinbirrin, an elder), and the community moves on into new ones. One is reassured, somehow, by the sense that disturbances will inevitably arise, but that ceremony and storytelling will continue to let the community outlive them. A good story doesn't end but is like a tree, and good trees provide support by having roots deep and far and wide, and by having many branches which between them can bear a lot of weight. In its synesthetic way, film may be able to convey some of that.

(Pictures: the Thomson photo which inspired the film's title; a scene from the film with ancient ancestors Ridjmiraril and Birrinbirrin; Rolf de Heer; a Thomson-inspired scene from the film which we first saw in black and white - the goose egg hunters taking shelter in trees to be safe from the Arafura swamp's crocodiles overnight - but now we learn that their ancestors, too, hunted goose eggs, and in the same way.)

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Ice trees


Satellite pics of the latest natural disaster to hit Australia: Cyclone Yasi.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Here we go

After missing the second scheduled class due to last week's snow day, my two courses this semester hit the road properly today. In "Aboriginal Australia..." we watched "Ten Canoes," and started our discussion of it. Studying the film and the process of its making should serve as a perfect introduction to that course - I'll let you know how it goes!

In "Exploring Religious Ethics" we discussed Susan Wolf's essay "Moral Saints" (Journal of Philosophy 79/8 [1982]; 419-39). It's our only piece of standard - that is, secular - moral philosophy. I use it because it provides a nice summary of analytic moral philosophy, and shows one way in which it is flawed: modern moral theories imply that we should aspire to ideals of "moral perfection" which most people don't actually consider admirable. "Moral saints," as she calls them, instead strike us as humorless and bland. She thinks the real problem goes much deeper, as a quotation from George Orwell's great essay on Gandhi shows (436n):
Is there something inhuman, even antihuman, in too "moral" a life?

I use her essay for another, related reason. As for many secular moral philosophers, religious ethics is to Wolf inconceivable as a species of ethics, and when she most ringingly excoriates the "moral saints" she channels common secular caricatures of religious people with remarkable clarity. She's distinguished two kinds of "moral saint," the "Loving Saint" who loves others more than self and is always only too happy to give up her own concerns for those of others, and the "Rational Saint" who subordinates her self-concern for other-concerns endorsed by moral reason. But both of these are really pathological freaks (424):
Just replace "morality" with "religion" and you get Dawkins or Hitchens!

I'm assuming that at least some of my students will have similar suspicions of "moralism" as they do of "religion"; the Wolf essay should help bring those out in the open right from the start. I use her essay also because, in the end, what she offers as a counterweight to unhealthy moralism - the "identifiable, personal self" which modern moral philosophy seems to many of us to undervalue if not indeed to reject - is a perfect point of departure for inquiry. Not because morality is at war with selfishness; the altruism/egoism problem is staler than stale. In a course on Buddhist and Christian ethics we can ask deeper questions about that "self" (is it complete? is it autonomous? does it even exist?) and so reground or reorient the "ethics" thought to be in tension with it.

We start on religious understandings of the self, shooting the moon: with Kierkegaard.