Thursday, March 31, 2011

Progressive beyond our years

From the catalog of the New School for Social Research 1924-1925.
Fingertips courtesy of CH, the heroic librarian who has single-handedly preserved the legacy of The New School for forty archiveless years.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Learned a new word today: homogamy. It's not the gay marriage that's breaking out all over (traraa traraa!) but a sociological term for people marrying within a given sociological category. In recent decades, I learned at a talk by Richard Arum today, "class homogamy" has ceded place to "educational homogamy." Spouses and partners have attained the same educational level (high school, college, etc.), and often spent time at the same schools.

Arum was discussing the results of research underlying the book he coauthored with Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. As has been widely reported, they found that today's college students spend dramatically less time studying than students half a century ago - at least in part because many college classes give high grades for next to no reading or writing. Homogamy came up as he considered the non-learning outcomes of a college education, which he suggested more and more students come for: college life (a more social than academic experience), networks and connections which lead to employment, and, well, who you wind up spending your life with. You can get all of these even if your skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing are untouched.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


FM, an anthropologist of the Pintupi, came to class today, and told us about his fieldwork there, starting in 1973. That was an interesting time, with doors closing and opening. On the one hand, an earlier anthropologist's breaking a promise not to reproduce images of an initiation ceremony (which ended up in a book which ended up in the hands of a Pintupi woman, who ended up with a spear through her thigh) meant that FM was not permitted to take notes or pictures of secret ceremonies, and so couldn't offer analyses of them - the heart of earlier ethnographies. On the other hand, the Papunya Tula arts movement had just begun, and FM became the friend of many of its great artists, people like Uta Uta Tjangala (above) and Shorty Lungkartja (right). It was wonderful to hear and see how the acrylic paintings emerged out of dreaming ceremonies - paintings like these are ravishing aesthetic objects, but hearing their stories brings in another dozen dimensions of wonder. (Shorty's picture, for instance, shows a great gathering of ancestors painting each other's bodies for a ceremony.) The two issues - sacred images and new artistic expressions - intersected in fascinating ways. In the water dreaming painting by Johnny Warangkula at left, for instance, ritual objects are hidden in plain sight. One of the most memorable images, however, showed a colorful painting with what appeared to be three black ovals on the diagonal: in fact, this was an early painting depicting sacred objects; FM had blacked them out as we have no business seeing them! That hit home even more than the catalog and website of the recent exhibition of early Papunya art, where several works are not shown.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ordinary miracles

On a bit of a lark, went with my friend L to see "Infinite Variety," the exhibition of 651 red and white American quilts from three centuries, which is up for just one week in the vastness of the Park Avenue Armory. So glad I did: it's a revelation. The artistry, the variety, and all the while knowing these were consummate women's work, made lovingly, creatively and often collectively. In an almost religious way, the exhibition's "tornadoes of quilts" brought hundreds of ordinary artists, and homesteads of thousands of cozy sleepers, back into sweet memory.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


In this second half of the semester, I'm going to be pushing the students in "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion" to get beyond simple and static ideas of "authenticity" - a word which keeps coming up. They seem to have come to terms with the first challenge to "authenticity" - the role of Western observers and media in most of what we can learn of Aboriginal cultures (at least in a classroom in New York City). But a second challenge will, I think, bother them more, and yield richer fruit: Aboriginal Christianity (or: appropriations of Christianity). As one student asked on Thursday, are not the narratives of David Mowaljarlai "tainted" by Christianity? We were discussing one of my favorites, a moiety-system refraction of Cain and Abel (Yorro Yorro 49-52):
What are they going to make of the art of Linda Syddick, then, who often paints Christian motifs like the images at the top of this post in the Australian Museum in Sydney. Apparently the scene at left shows the nativity with the magi, though it's hard not also to see the Trinity revealed to Abraham, too. (Syddick's series on Steven Spielberg's ET may trouble the students less; we'll see!)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hill of beans

Three pounds of roasted green beans, kabocha and red onions for tonight's Religious Studies party.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dreaming spires

Waiting in front of the too popular ramen shop Ippudon (we ended up going elsewhere, the wait was too long), caught this lovely glimpse of Grace Church's near Salisburian fineness in dialogue with an old water tower (or is it a Shaun Tanian Lost Thing?), in the last sun of the day.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Perhaps Australia really looks like this - an animal floating on its back in the ocean. As drawn and explained by David Banggal Mowaljarlai:
The squares are the areas where the communities are represented, and their symbols and the languages of the different tribes in this country from long-long time ago. The lines are the way the history stories travelled along these trade routes. They are all interconnected. It's the pattern of the Sharing system.
In history, the Flood started up north and went all through the country. We call this land wurri malai - stooped, because it's sloping down, bent. ...
The whole of Australia is Bandaiyan. The front we call wadi, the belly-section, because the continent is lying down flat on its back. it is just sticking out from the surface of the ocean. ...
Inside the body is Wunggud, the Snake. She grows all of nature on the outside of her body. The sides are unggnu djullu, rib-section. This rib-section goes right across the country, above the navel. Uluru is the navel, the center, wangigit. The part below the navel is wambut, the pubic section. There is a woman's section, njambut; and a man's section, ambut....
On sundown side and in the east the connection extends out to the islands, because it was a bigger continent before the Flood.

David Mowaljarlai and Jutta Malnic, Yorro Yorro: everything standing up alive. Spirit of the Kimberley (Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 1993), 190-91, picture 205.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In the numbers

Two hundred years ago today, the Grid which was to define the character of civic life in Manhattan was planned. Not just the right angles! Already in 1811 someone decided that certain streets should be wider than others - 100 rather than 60 feet:


What were they thinking? They couldn't have imagined what was to come!
Here's our neighborhood.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The view over Prospect Place at dusk.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Stop mucking around!

Meanwhile, back in Exploring Religious Ethics land, some friendly thoughts from Santideva at the charnel-ground:

Although it does not move, you are terrified of a skeleton when it is seen like this. Why have you no fear of it when it moves as if animated by a vampire?
They produce both spit and shit from the single source of food. You do not want the shit from it. Why are you so fond of drinking spit?

If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, a cage of bones bound by sinew, smeared with slime and flesh?
You have plenty of filth of your own! Satisfy yourself with that! Glutton for crap! Forget her, that other pouch of filth!

Aside from the delicate lotus, born in muck, opening up in the rays of a cloudless sun, what is the pleasure in a cage of crap for a mind addicted to filth?

Apparently you were horrified when you saw a few corpses in the charnel ground. Yet you delight in your village, which is a charnel-ground thronging with moving corpses.

Bodhicaryavatara 8:48-49, 52-53, 70
trans. Kate Crosby & Andrew Skilton (OUP, 2008), 92-93

Image from a Kusozu scroll

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Spring sceptics, just come take a walk in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Found/lost in translation

Remember that rather surreal conference experience I had in Taipei in 2006, the one where everything was in untranslated Chinese, except me? (My hosts didn't so much as translate the titles of my fellow symposiasts' presentations!) Well, with a characteristic academic time lag, the publication suddenly appeared in the mail yesterday four years later, complete with a stack of offprints. Consistent with the original symposium's utter incomprehensibility, the publication is all in Chinese (including my piece), the cover letter too. The cherry on top is that now I can't read the title even of my own contribution!


My friend G has posted a link to a map of earthquake activity in Japan. Here are the 566 quakes of the last week. 317 are 5 or higher on the Richter scale. You can watch them happen over time here - make sure to click "Sticky Dots." It starts slowly, then: boomboomboomboomboom.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Over here

I should stop obsessing about the situation in Japan - I've been flipping back and forth between Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Guardian, Australian, NHK, 朝日新聞 (Asahi Shimbun), BBC and even al-Jazeera since Friday. I guess I've been trying to bear some sort of witness to suffering I'm powerless to respond to (something I've used this blog for before, most acutely when b(r)ushfires threatened to destroy where my parents and sister live), and to express solidarity with Japanese people in suspended animation, waiting for the final shoe to drop on the nuclear plants (whatever it turns out to be). You won't think I'm forgetting if I spend a little time on the activities of this week here in New York - it's our Spring Break (though Spring has yet to arrive).

I went yesterday to the American Museum of Natural History, ostensibly for its rather meager collection of Aboriginal Australian artifacts, which are quite upstaged by the other objects in the Hall of Pacific Peoples,
but there's so much else there,
and so many people to watch (though this one may have been watching Japan). And those rhinos standing stock still in the glass case above - if mama even turned her head there would be shards everywhere! - from Sumatra.

Today it was the turn of the New Museum - my first visit - a bit of a disappointment, though Lynda Benglis' gorgeous "wax paintings" really appealed to me; they reminded me of the fusion of human craft and nature's randomness of, yes, Japanese pottery.

But the highlight of the week has been the great pleasure and privilege of seeing the Signature Theatre Company revival of Angels in America - Part I on Tuesday from the second row, and Part II last night from the first. It's a great play, and magnificently theatrical. What a treat.
In the scene where Prior goes up to heaven to return the book, the angels are gathered around an old radio listening to a BBC radio broadcast about a nuclear disaster four months in the future. It's Chernobyl, of course, but I'm sure every one in that theater heard Fukushima.

Always on our minds. Prayers.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The next layer

And now, while the world watches the nuclear plants in anxiety and terror, cold as from the depths of winter is descending on the Tohoku region. White snow blankets the remains of towns toppled by the black tsunami. Survivors without shelter or warm clothes are struggling to protect themselves against frigid temperatures. (Asahi Shimbun; pic below Guardian/Reuters)