Friday, April 29, 2011

Liberal arts

I just had the pleasure of hosting a wonderful panel discussion on the state and prospects of liberal arts, comprised of faculty who teach in colleges and universities large and small, public and private. That all the panelists were alumni of Lang only made it sweeter. Some highlights:

The first panelist is a historian at the University of Chicago, but he most enjoys teaching classic texts of social theory. He has taught at several great books schools, and gave a powerful argument for great books curricula. They are not, he argued, conservative. They look rigid only from the outside; inside, there is vigorous discussion of issues of canonization. And the ideas? It's a "radical colloquy," more eye-opening than most undergraduates can imagine (he described the pleasure of seeing a young mind, given to speculation but inclined to reverence at classic texts, discover that these classic texts are full of explosive ideas) and the source of many of the most incisive and critical ideas today. Pity that younger faculty members nowadays disdain to teach the whole tradition!

The next panelist is also a historian, but teaches at the University of New Hampshire, and gave a report on the state of the state schools. It's a frightening time, not only because of cutbacks but because state legislatures are scaling back collective bargaining rights of state employees (like professors); at least it's not yet come to monitoring emails. She drew attention to the experience of spending time over texts and discussions at the heard of a liberal arts curriculum, and reminded us how rare it is - but also important. It's another privilege, and perhaps a responsibility, for those acquainted with the power of such experiences to to share it with students who could not perhaps imagine that you could spend a life - or even a year - in the realm of ideas, inquiry, study.

The third panelist teaches in education studies at SUNY New Paltz. A Native Alaskan, she explored how social science and liberal arts might help Native peoples rather than harm them. Too much research on indigenous and other marginalized populations focuses on damage, she argued, and can lead to a distorted self-understanding in these populations. Could not one imagine research which helps communities resist understanding themselves as damaged by focusing on desire? Liberal arts could also be of use to Settlers, if they (we!) recognized the historical and structural affinities between settler colonialism and traditional conceptions of the liberal arts - and transformed or transcended them. Suppose we understood land as knowledge rather than property, and recognized human traditions as sovereign rather than insisting on a project of "inclusion"? In words which named some of the issues I've been grappling with in my Aboriginal Australia course, she proposed a new mission for the liberal arts: "teaching the settler to be indigenous." Wow!

The next speaker is an anthropologist at Wesleyan, and came to Lang from India. She sees the liberal arts as under serious threat from a neoliberal takeover of the univeristy, though in this situation the liberal arts are as important as ever in teaching us to question received categories - from "diversity" to "globalization" to "human rights" to "citizenship." Unfortunately, the most interesting work on these fronts takes place in interdisciplinary work which slips through the cracks of disciplined universities, and which often takes forms - blogs, performances - which universities don't value. Reflecting back on her time as a student here, she found that many of the most important things she had learned had been learned not in classes but outside them, in teach-ins and sit-ins and demonstrations. Neoliberalism represents a grave threat to a liberal arts which overflows the academic disciplines.

The final speaker is, unlike the others, not a full-time professor. He teaches part-time at our own institution, as part of a career as an advocate for environmental justice. He praised liberal arts as an antidote to the desire for simple, single answers which he finds both in the first year students he teaches and in the environmental justice professionals with whom he works. The advocacy community, he reported, is reluctant to admit doubts, and so is less self-critical than one might hope or expect. It is thus good not only for his studenst but for him, as a professional, to participate in the exploratory, self-revising and open-ended discussions which are the heart of a liberal arts education. Everyone would benefit if we could find ways to open the conversation of the liberal arts to professionals and activists.

I haven't emphasized all the way these reflections - which address and reimagine all the major contexts in which liberal arts fights for survival in our day - resonated with each other; you can connect the dots. But I have to say, I can't remember the last time I heard so many important issues in higher education explored in so generous, critical and visionary a way. I can't imagine a better way for a liberal arts college to pat itself on the back than to assemble a group of alumni like this. (I assembled it, but had no idea how remarkable it would be). Well-done, Lang!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

In the beginning was

For the final section of our exploration of Aboriginal Australian religion, we turned today to Aboriginal Christianities. We've already encountered Christianity at several points along the way, notably in David Mowaljarlai, in the paintings of Linda Syddick, and in the film "Sampson and Delilah." Today we began with the lovely interpretation - better, recontextualization, if not indeed appropriation - of Genesis 1 in The Rainbow Spirit in Creation (Liturgical Press, 2000), with a translation by (Job scholar!) Norman Habel and paintings by Jasmine Corowa, daughter of one of the Rainbow Spirit Elders. I projected images of the book on our big screen, and read the Biblical text. Meanwhile, the book passed from one student to another, each reading the artist's explanation of the symbols and colors. (Here are the first, seventh and ninth images - with the explanatory texts at the bottom of this post.) Even though my projections were in black and white (d'oh!) the effect was magical. A new world unfolded before our eyes, strange yet familiar. You try too!


One hundred and fifty tornadoes in one night, some a mile wide? Over two hundred dead, and countless homes destroyed? Life on earth is getting scarier and scarier.

There's some pretty intense weather coming our way, too.

(Update: there were tornadoes upstate, but we're unscathed.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Powerpoint karaoke

One of my colleagues tells me of a new game among the truly nerdy - finding someone's powerpoint slides online, and then improvising a lecture to them at a party (while drinking, of course). Apparently it's quite a hoot. I can sort of see it... This isn't a slide from a powerpoint presentation (at least not where I found it) but I imagine a generous admixture of spirits might unlock its mysteries.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On the shoulders of giants

Just came from a gathering celebrating the contributions of philosopher, feminist and peace activist Sally Ruddick to The New School. Ruddick was probably the most influential of the long-term faculty of the Seminar College and Eugene Lang College in its first years. (She actually started at the university in 1967, shortly after completing the first PhD on Wittgenstein at Harvard.) I never met her - she had to stop teaching because of Parkinson's Disease a few years before I arrived - but I knew her as the author of Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace, one of those amazing books that change the world. (It was actually introduced that way to me; a graduate student colleague told me it made her grateful to have been born late enough to be there to read it.)
The little I've been able to do is to ensure that Sally is duly remembered by the school to which she gave so much - and from which she got so much, too (her husband Bill reminded us that she felt no other school would have allowed her to explore so widely, and so to write her truly path-breaking books). We celebrate Lang's 25th anniversary this year, but there would be no Lang to celebrate (that is, Eugene Lang would never have made the donation for which the trustees expressed their gratitude by naming the college after him) had there not already been something pretty fantastic going on here. Sally was a big part of that thing - something you could still feel tonight in the tributes of old colleagues and students old and new.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Triduum plus

Ought one go to church on Easter? The Triduum is pretty intense, and complete; many let the Easter Vigil sound the final note, and rest from their churchly labors. As is becoming my wont (it started in Melbourne), I rested in a different way - went to a different church. Indeed, it seems like spreading oneself around makes a kind of theological sense, too. Maundy Thursday with one's own congregation makes sense - though/and I enjoyed the sense that the same scene of footwashing was taking place throughout the city and beyond. (Of course traditional Catholics visit seven other churches that night.) But attending Good Friday at an unfamiliar church proved valuable in its way, too: the events of that awe-ful day are
too grand for the comfort of a familiar worshiping community. The Easter Vigil back home with one's peeps makes good sense: turning one's church in to a catacomb and then living out the history of salvation together (especially as it is read and sung by your regular fellow worshipers) is powerful. But Easter Day? Spend it with glad strangers! The Easter message is big news, after all. Out in the open now it reaches way beyond any congregation or denomination, embracing all. So I went to the Roman Catholic church of St. Francis Xavier, the parish of my friend M. Overflowing with people! Pastels abounding! (The newly restored and reconsecrated church itself appeared to be made of marzipan.) And top-quality performance of the rather Broadway-type music favored in contemporary Catholicism. After the austere and archaic Episcopal Triduum it seemed almost evangelical in energy, overflowing with life.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mourning dove

That dove is still outside my window, at least two weeks on. She's persisted through some pretty nasty weather - whatever its other merits as a nesting site, a fire escape offers no shelter from above. I've been amazed each day to find her still there. What devotion.

But does it really take that long to hatch eggs?

Perhaps not, I learned today. I raised the screen to take a picture of her covered in pearling raindrops and she fluttered briefly away, revealing... not an egg.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Pange Lingua

Stumbled on the largest French-style pipe organ built in the last half century today - also the only French-built organ installed in New York. It's at the Church of the Ascension, and it's brand new - official consecration is May 1st. (The organ it replaces did not extend into the sanctuary the way this one does.) Its deep rich power enveloped us as we sang the lovely "Pange Lingua" (166 in the 1982 Hymnal) which I am familiar with as plainchant (mode 3!) - unison, and a capella or accompanied by a simple recorder. What a difference! But appropriate to Good Friday. Human voices nearly drowned out by resonant depths, troubling modulations, tragic grandeur.

Lake Eyre

The Queensland floods, having made their way through Central Australian desert, have reached South Australia's Lake Eyre (source).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On an overcast day, the riot of flower on one of the trees nearly felled by the tornado last Fall (the one at Vanderbilt and Prospect Pl).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Looking through the catalog to the influential 1988 Asia Society exhibition on Aboriginal art, we had a good laugh over this ad, Melbourne, 1987. Could there really have been a sleepwear company called "Young Colony"?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ride on to die

It's Palm Sunday again, and I was reminded anew of the incredible power of this service - the reason why we asked students in "Religion & Theater" to attend a Palm Sunday service. One begins in high festive mood, clergy vested in a bright red, crucifixes festooned with palms, and children handing out palm fronds to everyone in the congregation. We sing the joyous hymn "All glory, laud and honor to thee, Redeemer, King!" and process outside the church. When we return, the lights in the church have dimmed; the clergy are taking off their bright garments and stripping the altar, as red cloth - suddenly not bright but bloody - is stretched over all images of Christ; and we sing this terrible hymn:There's an older setting, but this modern one is full of strange and painful modulations (minor and also major); the organ crashes through them, its final sounds before falling silent for the duration of Holy Week. (It will return, accompanied by brass, with the return of light in the festive turn of the Easter Vigil.) The Palm Sunday service has only begun - soon follows a dramatic reading of the passion. The sorrow of the dimming of the lights will be drawn out at Tenebrae Wednesday night, ending with the light of a single candle. The brutality of the stripping of the altar will be repeated on Good Friday. But there is something aw(e)fully powerful in the opening of the Palm Sunday liturgy, the whole terrible mystery lived out in Holy Week compressed into one thing... all of it but Easter.

Jury duty keys

I promised a key to the posts during my jury duty - a key needed because they were encrypted! I don't think I broke my vow in these posts; they're only about general, perhaps generic aspects of the experience, not about particulars of the case. But now I can say more.

The photo on the first day shows the building which houses the Brooklyn Family Court and the criminal cases of the Brooklyn Supreme Court. (I wasn't permitted to say that I was on a criminal rather than a civil case.) We were on the 20th floor, with stunning views of downtown Brooklyn and across the Manhattan Bridge toward Manhattan. Cameras are not permitted, though, so no pictures of the view. Suffice it to say that we were literally up in the air, above the city whose life we were trying to understand. (I described some of the ways potential jurors were welcomed and instructed on Sunday, though not the process by which we ended up with a jury of six African-American women, three African-American men, one Asian man, a white woman and me.)

Day 2
shows a picture taken in East Side Cheeses, where I went to get supplies for entertaining students. To ensure my classes didn't fall behind I was planning to have each one over for a meal at least once. (In the end, five of seven students in Exploring Religious Ethics joined me for an ostentatiously austere "Zen repast" on Wednesday night - we were discussing Dogen; since the class meets at 8 am, I was subsequently able to attend most meetings of that class. The Aboriginal Australia students proved harder to corral, so I wound up making brunch for some on Saturday, met another Sunday afternoon, and most of the remainder Monday night.) But the East Side Cheeses window seemed an appropriate picture too as we were getting the opening statements of Assistant District Attorney and Attorney for the Defense. Not that they were peddling cheese, exactly! But there was a sense in which our view of the world was at that point entirely papered over by their suggestions - which, to strain the analogy even further - we were supposed to get behind. (In a way the goofiness of the picture was a negative of the seriousness of the case: I could not tell you that it involved the alleged rape of a girl by her father, or that we had seen the girl squirming on the witness stand and then shutting down.)

Day 3 was rather frustrating. Only two witnesses, and neither interesting. The mosaic is from the subway station nearest Film Forum, where I saw the marvelous "Le Quattro Volte" the week before. But the image also suited the mood. We seemed to be able to make an appearance back in our usual lives but were in fact submerged.

Not much testimony the next day either, though the testimony of the alleged victim's mother was passionate and - to me - heart-breaking. (Not until Tuesday would I learn that some of my fellow jurors read her mien very differently - and her motives.) "Cappricio" and Japanese company were a welcome distraction.

On day 5, the little girl was again called to the stand. I understood later that her inability (or refusal) to answer many questions from the defense had risked jeopardizing the case, and that this second day of testimony was supposed to fix it - but it didn't. She seemed more closed than before. The lone person in the audience was a social worker who placed herself directly in view of the girl, and there were clearly signals passing between them. Mere reassurance, I thought, appropriate and sorely needed in the face of the defense's aggressive questioning. But the defense managed to convince several in our jury that the girl had been instructed to lie and friendly seeming "Miss Denice" was in fact enforcing this. What would become a central question when the jury was permitted to deliberate was how to understand the girl's silences: trauma at remembered abuse, in the presence of the abuser? fear or guilt at telling lies, in the presence of the one you were lying about? or just the terror of a room of strange grown-ups?

Sunday's extended reflections on the difficulty of not understanding our experience as if we were in a movie, playing a part in something scripted and timed, apply to every part of the experience, even the jury deliberations which followed. In a film of a trial, everything you see and hear is significant - even a yawn. In a real trial, it's not clear what's significant - anything might turn out to be. Well, not just anything, since the airwaves are full of things which aren't supposed to count as evidence, like the tone and language of the attorneys. I was very troubled by a certain formulation the defense attorney used in cross-examining witnesses. After a witness had testified that X had happened, for instance, he would raise his voice and say Isn't it a fact that what really happened was Y? Isn't that the truth? This when no evidence of any kind had been given for or about Y. The judge sustained objections to other questions which presupposed a fact not yet established, but no objection was even raised to these Isn't it a fact... questions; I'm still not sure why.

Monday did not, as we had been led to expect, consist only of closing arguments. A child psychologist was called: an expert witness who knew, and was told, nothing about our particular case. She told us in general about how children who have suffered abuse deal with situations like being in court, but, of course, every child is different. Presumably the DAs called her to help us understand the child's silences, but the defense managed to turn part of the jury against her by asking her if children who lie are sometimes ashamed and silent (yes) and if she could always tell when a child was lying (no), and extracting that she was being paid for her testimony - indeed $300/hour - and that she had been called on Friday afternoon. But the closing arguments are what I had in mind as I posted the picture of the opaque glass cubes. The attorneys have to present their cases as if they are crystal clear, but that has the effect of showing just how far the evidence heard in fact was from being clear! Our clarifying work was cut out for us, but seemed daunting, to say the least.

The "Rashomon" scene I posted on day 7 was my note to myself not to forget (as if I could) that our deliberations began with a big surprise. The closing arguments had essentially offered two ways of explaining how the descendant's semen had ended up inside the little girl's underwear: he assaulted her, or the girl's mother had smeared it there as an act of vengeance, from a condom she had prevailed on him to use in sex with her. When the defense attorney called up the adage that "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" I thought all the women on our jury would be offended, but he knows juries better than I do. When the jury was finally allowed to start talking about the case, it became clear that the majority of the jury's seven women bought the "a woman scorned" line, and thought the woman had framed the defendant. "I'm a woman," was a common claim, "and I know what women are capable of." (One even said "I don't even blame her.") Meanwhile, though less elaborated, most of the jury's five men thought the defendant guilty. I would have expected the opposite - gender solidarity. I've pondered what was really going on there a lot since then. While certainly testimony to the power of cultural stereotypes, including internalized ones, it also seemed to suggest a lot of other things beyond the war of the sexes. I was put in mind of "Rashomon" also because it's a Buddhist movie; the interpretations, while at least some of them mistaken, together convey a sense of fallen human nature (in the "Rashomon" case the category would be the decline of the law, mappô 末法). While the defendant may have been presumed innocent, human nature was not. The imperative I thought I was witnessing to tell stories, even self-incriminating ones, troubles and moves me still.

On day 8, I actually broke down and wrote about our deliberations, though scrupulously avoiding any clue as to the nature of the case. I was observing how our discussions ebbed and flowed, how arguments were registered and claimed and contested and dismissed, who was paying attention, how people reported their states of mind along the way, and when - not so rarely - discussion became self-referential: especially on the central question of what was to be considered a "reasonable doubt." (I was of course observing myself, too.) That I had been reviewing Aquinas's discussion of "prudence" for class made me ultra-aware of the difficulty of our task - the application of general moral principles to a particular case - and helped start me on thinking that there is something radically, insanely democratic in the jury system. (For Aquinas, as for his tradition, prudence is rare, a virtue for rulers; the corresponding virtue for the rest of us is obedience - we can't understand and don't need to, that is, all we need to understand is that we can't and needn't but that our rulers do and we should defer to them. Imagine asking a whole society to defer to what a randomly selected group of non-specialists decided was reasonable!) The aftertaste of Aristotle and Aquinas as our deliberations took wing made me aware of the grandeur of what we were (supposed to be) doing.

And then, on the 9th day, everything came together. Don't think it was easy, though, or that we left the process feeling a burden had been lifted. At the end of the prior day's deliberation we'd taken a straw poll and found that, while 9 of 12 had doubts that penetration had happened (the first of three counts, rape in the first degree, requires penetration), we were evenly split 6 to 6 on the other two counts (sexual contact and endangerment of a child). This was not so different from the day before that, and not just the more intransigent in our number thought we should tell the judge we were at an impasse and ask him to declare a mistrial. Arrived the next day, some minds had changed - it was more like 9 to 3 on all three counts - but those convinced of the defendant's guilt would not be moved by our arguments. So we sent a note to the judge, and were read what must be Appendix A of the judge's handbook, a rather inspiring speech ordering us to keep deliberating: We had been selected because the attorneys and judge had confidence in our ability to be fair and open, and we had also given our word to that effect; most juries which think they have reached stalemate wind up able to make a verdict; there was no reason to suppose another jury would be smarter or more hard-working than we; so get back to work! Strangely, this had an energizing, even a galvanizing effect on us. "Thank you, judge" we said as one, leaping up ... and in less than an hour we had arrived at our verdict. I'm not saying the judge's exhortation made the three inclined to a guilty verdict listen to the rest of us and accept the reasonability of our doubts (which were in any case not arguments that the defendant was innocent - few of us thought he was). One juror said "I want my life back so I'm not going to stand in the way of the majority" - though several of us protested that nobody was asking him to make such a sacrifice, and he proceeded to give a desperate and eloquent argument for his own certainty. (I think his certainty, like that of another holdout, was based in a conviction that a crime had happened - a crime he had himself witnessed as a child.) I'm not sure that the three changed their positions, even on the procedural argument that we didn't need to and indeed couldn't make an objective judgment of the defendant, just an assessment of the coherence of the proffered evidence, but somehow they changed their votes. I doubt any of us was happy with the outcome. Having been warned of the likelihood of such an outcome during our instructions didn't change much, any more than the judge's words to us after, or the revelations from the District Attorney's Office lawyer. As my Buddhist friend observed, the suffering in the case had been spread to encompass the jurors.

I've been talking about little but this experience for the last fortnight. A friend who's a Court Attorney (in a different court) says she's interested where I'll be in my thinking a week from now. Interesting question! I'll let it sit... or try.

Long may she wave

I'm sure you must have read that the image of Lady Liberty on the recent stamp is not of the statue in New York Harbor but of the replica at Las Vegas' New York, New York. An innocent mistake at the Postal Service, apparently. But, wow!

It's really unnecessary to comment. I'll just observe that it may be time to think of canonizing Jean Baudrillard: this shows agency from beyond the grave. And that it has an Ozymandias element. It's a "Forever Stamp," a symptom of this culture's inability to think seriously about the future even as it forecloses it.

Friday, April 15, 2011


So I was eagerly telling a Buddhist friend that my jury duty experience had been "Buddhisty" at the new Joe's coffee shop opposite Teachers College this afternoon. The more we had sought a stable reality independent of ignorance, sensation and feeling, the less stability we had found! Our minds worked overtime to crank out ever more outlandish press releases that everything made sense, fiction in the service of the myth of fact! And all the while the twelve of us worked out in fear and trembling our impossible mission to judge and speak as one, unable to command assent or dissent! We came together as one only in declaring ourselves hopelessly divided, then truly came together only when the Zen master judge told us we were enlightened already and to get back to work! And then dissolved...!

His response to my performance?

I'm hearing so much suffering, he said, in the plaintiff and defendant, and then spread out to all the jurors. So much suffering!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jury duty day 9

We're done. And we got off easy - as did the defendant. Not to bore you with details, but on this our third day of deliberation we decided to acquit the defendant on all charges - even though many of us felt in our hearts that he was guilty. (When we were dismissed yesterday, we were divided 6/6 on two charges.) In the end there were just too many gaps in the DA's case - and way too many doubts floating around the room.
The idea that the accused might now be free to commit a(nother) crime weighed heavily on us, as I'm sure it must for many a jury. One jury member, an immigrant from a Muslim country, was particularly troubled. I think he feared standing before his God and being asked why he allowed someone he was "99.9% certain" was a criminal go free, an understandable concern. Vigorous discussion ensued of what the presumption of innocence means, and the separation of church and state (which we're assuming God recognizes!) - among many unexpected and extraordinary things which emerged in our deliberations.

But then we got off easy, getting a kind of closure juries usually don't get. The judge came to see us after the verdict, and told us that it had been not only a difficult but an unprecedented case. While remaining scrupulously agnostic on the case he explained: the main witness, the alleged victim, was a child, whose testimony had been problematic. In response to many questions, including most from the defense attorney during cross-examination, the child was unresponsive. Had it been an adult, the judge explained, the witness would have been declared in contempt of court and forced to answer or go to jail. In the case of a child this was impossible. The judge could have sent us home right there, he explained. But he decided to let it go forward to see what we would do. Since we had decided to acquit, all was well. But if our verdict had been guilty, we learned, he would have voided the trial. (The DA's might still have appealed, and an appellate court restored our verdict.) Seems an undeserved "whew" we all felt at that point.

This assuaged some of our anxiety but then, as we waited for the elevator going down, we got another "whew." One of the assistant DAs, the charts of DNA evidence under her arm, asked a little despondently if there was anything she and her colleague might have done differently (we were happy to oblige, having phantastized about all sorts of witnesses and evidence we wished had been presented). Then she reassured us that the child, "a brave little girl," was safe; there was already a Family Court order of protection against the defendant. Whew indeed. Though of course none of this suggests the man was innocent.

It's late, so other reflections on the absurdity, the impossibility, and the privilege of serving on a jury (and keys to the encrypted observations of the past week and a half's blogposts) will have to wait. If only for now: I feel irresistibly compelled to tell stories about it, in part, I know, because I have rarely been as aware of our need for stories, of our reckless virtuosity in fashioning them, and of the panic of considering that reality may not be story-shaped at all.

In any case:
these were nine days well spent. It was a privilege.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Because of continuing jury duty, I will not be able to participate in a teach-in tomorrow on the recent Japanese calamities. Our university has little in the way of Japanologists, so I was to be part of it, and had a pert little talk mapped out - "Tenbatsu (天罰) and Muenbotoke (無縁仏)," which was to recall discussions of theodicy during the year I spent in Japan in 1992-93 in connection with Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara's much-publicized but unrepresentative claim that the earthquake was a kind of divine punishment (tenbatsu) for Japan, and then focus on the problem of the unburied dead, building on recent research on "funeral Buddhism" by Buddhologist Mark Rowe.
I've sent the organizer the outline of the remarks I'd planned, but I doubt he'll be able to make enough sense of them to share with the audience. Perhaps he can at least read this poem from the Man'yoshu.

Jury duty day 8

Jury duty's not finished teaching me things, although a second, full, day of deliberation has not moved us closer to consensus. Lines have been drawn in the sand by some, while the rest of us worry over what would qualify a doubt as "reasonable." Should the view of a fellow-juror who claims to have stopped listening ("my mind is made up, nothing can change it!") be considered a doubt, not to mention a reasonable one? Or would that simply be caving in?

It really is a quite extraordinary thing we're tasked with doing: twelve strangers asked to arrive at a unanimous view about a difficult matter with minimal instruction. When, in normal life, does one ever need to arrive at final unanimity like this, even with loved ones? In democracy we basically vote what we think, and accept the consequences, whether we find ourselves in majority or minority. We've done our bit by drawing our line in the sand. (In theory but without opportunity for practice, I've long thought more mutual accounting and listening is required.) But having to "keep an open mind" until a consensus emerges is somewhere between unimaginable, impossible and totally radical.

I may or may not be the only one to be thinking about other jurors as the arbiters of the "reasonable" - even if their doubts don't make sense to me, do I owe it to them to assume they are reasonable? What I am confident is true beyond a reasonable doubt is that I'm the only juror in Brooklyn at the moment reading Thomas Aquinas' discussion of "prudence" in breaks between deliberation (topic of tomorrow's Exploring Religious Ethics class)! Prudentia, you'll recall, is the rather mysterious virtue which allows us to live out all the other virtues, by connecting our knowledge of principles with the particularities of actual situations: a prudent person needs to know both the universal principles of reason and the individual things that are the objects of human action (ST II-II Q 47, Q 3). It is a rare and nearly indescribable virtue. (For Aristotle, Aquinas' inspiration here, phroneisis is something best learned by imitation.) Premoderns knew as moderns often forget that reality is complicated. Each individual event or circumstance is singular enough that the application of principles to it is no simple thing - try asking a jury!

Interestingly, prudence also preeminently belongs to rulers - if they are raised to achieve great virtue and discernment, at least. (The virtue of subjects is to obey.) But what if you didn't trust rulers, even while thinking that particular cases have a complexity likely to exceed the comprehension of any normal person? Maybe you'd think gathering a dozen such people and asking them to act as one mind could work. Let's hope it does! For this one normal person - like many of his fellow jurors - continues as an individual to be baffled and even disheartened by the opacity of the particular case they been charged with determining.

[Jury duty update: deliberation continues tomorrow. It feels like a stalemate, and some of the jurors think that if we tell the judge, he'll let us go. I'm not so optimistic, or pessimistic.]

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jury duty day 7

Remember Kurosawa Akira's great film "Rashomon"? I hadn't thought about it as one of the movies which structured my expectations regarding my experience with the court system, but it comes to mind now that deliberation has begun. I'm not thinking of the rather banal "Rashomon effect" but what has always struck as me as the most interesting thing about the film: the witnesses don't just all provide a different account of events. They also all plead guilty.

[Jury duty update: Got off to a late start deliberating, and will be continuing tomorrow, day 8!]

Monday, April 11, 2011

Jury duty day 6

In MetroTech Central Commons, as one part of a five-part Public Art Fund project called Total Recall, I happened today on these fascinating boxes - into which you could sort of, almost, but, ultimately, never really quite see. Apparently the work, "Minimal Consumption/Reflective Sublime/Aspirational Sunset Art" by Martin Basher, discloses its contents at night, and is about consumption. But to me it seemed appropriate if a little cruel to position it near the Brooklyn courts!

[Jury duty update: closing arguments finished today. Deliberation tomorrow. You can see Basher's boxes from our 20th floor jury room.]

Sunday, April 10, 2011

In camera = off camera !

Well, tomorrow we get closing arguments, and on Tuesday jury deliberation begins. I have no idea if it's going to be easy or hard. I don't even know what I will be saying. In part this is because I've been trying earnestly to "keep an open mind" as directed (which actually happens less through effort on my part than through knowing I will need to work out a consensus with 11 others, whose thoughts and reactions I cannot yet predict: amazing how that suspends judgment). In part, however, it's also because the evidence we've been presented isn't black and white.
I include this still from Sidney Lumet's great film "12 Angry Men" not only because Lumet just passed away, but because I've become ever more aware that my only points of reference for how the judicial system works are film, television and literature. We've been made aware of this from the start. Before you even fill out your juror card in the Brooklyn Supreme Court you are shown a film called "Your Turn" that presents not only reenactments of "trials by ordeal" but scenes from Perry Mason:
Then our judge, in his very first instructions to us, told us that TV crime programs thoroughly misrepresent how a court works. In reality, attorneys never state opinions, or make emotional appeals to juries. Witnesses almost never break down, or point at a shifty person among the spectators who rapidly hurries out of the chamber! As for "evidence" (which doesn't include anything the attorneys say), it is neither as interesting nor as consistent as in a film. Still, I've caught myself several times expecting that some witness's stumble would eventually surely crack the case open - a smoking gun! - explaining in retrospect each of the seemingly odd or opaque or off-point things we'd seen and heard before that. No such luck. We will have to fashion a story ourselves out of human opacity, not merely uncover it. (Actually, not even that - we just have to decide if a certain story works "beyond a reasonable doubt." Opacity might win.)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Vary my days

My friend J invited me to the star-studded semi-staged performance of "Company" which is the New York Philharmonic's Spring gala. Her husband doesn't share her appreciation for musicals, especially Sondheim, so I got to go (though also on the fence re: Sondheim). I don't think it was meant as an intervention! But it would make a good one, were one so minded. The final song, a breakthrough of sorts for pathologically single Robert, hits of whole line of nails on the head.

Somebody, hold me too close,

Somebody, hurt me too deep,

Somebody, sit in my chair

And ruin my sleep

And make me aware

Of being alive,

Being alive.

Somebody, need me too much,

Somebody, know me too well,

Somebody, pull me up short

And put me through hell

And give me support

For being alive,

Make me alive.

Make me confused,

Mock me with praise,

Let me be used,

Vary my days.

But alone is alone,

not alive.


I've been out so much this past week, what with jury duty and evenings recovering with friends or arts, it's been mighty quiet in my apartment. Quiet enough that this dove decided the flowerpot on my fire escape made a good place to build a nest. When we made eye contact for the first time this morning, she stared at me, immobile. As she desired, I went away (though of course I later fetched my camera; picture's a bit dull because taken through glass). I gather it's too late for her too move.

Mid-afternoon update:

Behold - her precious charges!

She must have gone off to get something to eat...

Friday, April 08, 2011

Jury duty day 5

Don't ask me what this has to do with Aboriginal rock art. It's from a sort of free-form dance religion called 5Rhythms, to one of whose events I went this evening at the invitation of a friend (who in the end couldn't come). It was mostly magical - several dozen people improvising to music of different rhythms in a Joffrey Ballet studio overlooking Sixth Avenue and Jefferson Market as night fell over the city. Almost two and a half hours of uninterrupted movement, paused only for a remarkably danced talk by our leader/DJ. She spoke a familiar-seeming new agey argot of yoga and self-realization, but - until we hit some Hindu devotional music - the overall experience was rather more like a dance club than I'd expected. (On the other hand, have I ever been in a dance club? And why not a dance religion?)

[Jury duty update: testimony finished! Closing arguments Monday, jury deliberation Tuesday.]

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Jury duty day 4

Went with a visiting Japanese friend to see the Met's production of Richard Strauss' final (almost anti-operatic) opera, "Capriccio" - really a "Conversation Piece for Music." We sat in the third-to-last row of the Family Circle, so didn't exactly get a close-up view, but the sound was clear and full. It's not often performed, which is a pity. What a gorgeous caprice - exquisite but not easy listening as almost each line is its own musical marvel, and they all come together in an almost mystical way ("Tristan and Isolde," the closest I know to musical alchemy of this sort, is quoted without quite being reverenced.) In lieu of a plot we have artists and their patrons and muse discussing the priority of word, melody or stagecraft ... while of course all are on fullest display, the Gesamtkunstwerk that much more persuasive for being explicit and in its way modest. Gräfin Madeleine, sung by Renée Fleming, ends by not choosing between the poet and composer who are vying for her favor.

Wählst du den einen - verlierst du den andern! Verliert man nicht immer, wenn man gewinnt? (zu ihrem Spiegelbild) Ein wenig ironisch blickst du zurück? Ich will eine Antwort und nicht deinen prüfenden Blick. Du schweigst? - O Madeleine, Madeleine! Willst du zwischen zwei Feuern verbrennen?
(Die Gräfin tritt dem Spiegel noch einen Schritt näher.)
Du Spiegelbild der verliebten Madeleine, kannst du mir raten, kannst du mir helfen den Schluss zu finden für ihre Oper? Gibt es einen, der nicht trivial ist?

(There's no mirror in the Met's lovely production - she faces the adoring audience.) Madeleine has been in some agitation before, but now smiles and heads off cheerfully to supper. No chance of triviality in an aesthetic work so pure. Wanting to add plot, characters, drama, passion to make it "grand opera" would be trivial!

[Jury duty update: witnesses few and far between today too, so we had a 2.5 hour lunch-break and barely 1.5 hours of testimony after that. We'll be lucky if we finish with testimony tomorrow.]

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Jury duty day 3

Mosaic by Deborah Brown at the Houston Street subway station.

[Jury duty update: not many witnesses available today, so the afternoon was free.]

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Jury duty day 2

East Side Cheeses

[Jury duty update: we're likely to be occupied more than a week - testimony and closing arguments this week, and deliberation beginning Monday. I'm scrambling to make up the classes I'll be missing by inviting students over for meals!]

Monday, April 04, 2011


One of the most pernicious myths white Australians (and through them the rest of the world) have about Aborigines is "walkabout." Whether in the nicer version celebrated in Nicholas Roeg's film of that name, according to which Aboriginal lads go on a sort of solitary spirit quest in the magical wastes of the red center, or in the nastier version of ranchers who thought that Aboriginal men had an irresponsible tendency to just up and leave for no rational reason at all, it's bunk. Boys approaching initiation leave society but not alone or unsupervised. And hunters follow prey, not an abstract calendar. What's interpreted as proof of a fundamental lawlessness is really response to the call of Law.

I mention this, because I'm going walkabout for a week. The Law - in this case, the jury system - has claimed me. I went in thinking going through the motions was sufficient - when the trial attorneys learned there was a professor in the group they'd drop him anyway - but well before I found (to my great surprise!), that I was to be a juror, I had decided that the claim of the justice system trumped other claims, and was even sorry that participation in this rather awe-inducing process was closed to me - until it became clear I was invited in. No walk in the park, I now know, and will know even more fully in the coming days. But a noble profession.

Sunday, April 03, 2011


Where I'll be tomorrow morning. And perhaps many days after that...
Or perhaps not. I'm sort of expecting that "professor of religion" won't gladden the hearts of lawyers constituting committees, but feel a bit guilty. I shouldn't try to avoid pulling my weight by acting professorial...

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Yeehaw, Spring!

(Actually it's General Henry Warner Slocum, at Grand Army Plaza.)

Friday, April 01, 2011


Michelangelo Frammartino's film "Le Quattro Volte" - opened this week at Film Forum - is a wonder. Scriptless but not unscripted, few of its main characters are human, but all are somehow deeply if not intimately connected, participating in the mystery of living and dying. Nothing as drab as rural lives "close to nature" is being explored here, nor anything as precious as "the cycles of nature" (herds of urban cinephiles delighting in the spectacle of herds of Calabrian goats!) What I mean: it's also a religious movie. Not at the expense of these other concerns, but involved in them in a deep deep way. I was reminded of Mary Douglas' understanding of Christianity as a composting religion.