Monday, April 30, 2012

Wise beyond his years

Getting ready to see "The Makropoulos Case" at the Met tomorrow, I can't resist posting this picture which someone found recently. 1983?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Extended family

Last Religious Studies party of the year! All constituencies were represented: current students (including one senior), alumni (one of whom founded a spiritual performance experiment company), faculty members (two of whom are moving on to new jobs, A Tibetanist moving with his research center to Cambridge, a Jewish historian moving to Baltimore), partners from our program's fabulous activities of the semester (Queer Christianities, and the Religion-Fashion seminars), and the program assistant who actually makes everything happen. A blessed little world!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Up and away!

Wow! This is one of a stash of long unseen images of New York - nearly a million! - just released by the Department of Records. (A selection.) These are painters on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1914.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Loose fit

Remember the fashion-religion seminars? Well, we move swiftly toward a product, thanks to the indefatigable work of my colleague O. My main contribution has become an essay, inspired by this brilliant product of our collage workshop. I think it's O's work. It made me remember that
Weber's "iron cage" (actually stahlhartes Gehäuse) developed from a piece of religious clothing, Puritan Richard Baxter's "cloak" (Mantel). "Keep [external] things loose about thee like thy upper garments," Baxter wrote in the XIIth part of The Saints' Everlasting Rest, "that thou mayest lay them by whenever there is need; but let God and glory be to next thy heart." I won't tire you with my cute but convoluted argument, such as it is, but here's the rather oracular conclusion:

In the secular age, an age in which fashion can seem to promise salvation, people wear their religions loose about them, like an upper garment that they can lay by whenever the need arises. They are not the less religiously serious for committing to their beliefs and practices in this way. They are aware, as few in history have been, of the contingency of their religious wardrobes, appreciating classic styles as well as the novel, the exotic, even the playful; aware of the dangers of the steely shell, they mix and match among them. And they are grateful for religious couture which can serve as a sign of true seeking.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Superstition or common sense?

Another religious studies discovery from the New School Scrapbooks, this from 1933 (#9/3, page 3). What can we make of this quite amazing list of speakers? Who planned it, who came to hear? One thing at least is clear: a lecture series on Friday nights excludes observant Jews.

Update 27/4: It appears to have been not in 1933 but in Spring 1932:
"Factual rather than propagandistic"! Our first guess is that it was the brainchild of Arthur L. Swift, a theologian and sociologist at Union Theological Seminary, who herewith started a long-standing relationship with The New School which would include teaching (I should check what courses he taught), heading an important self-study in 1953, becoming Vice President some years later, and receiving an Honarary Degree at the end of his career in 1961. The only surprise is that Horace Kallen, who had been teaching about religion since 1920 and whose course "Dominant Ideals of Western Civilization" appears as course #6 in this same Spring 1932 catalog, had no part in it.

Cloud of witnesses

A slide from the talk J and I gave today in the university civic engagement series, accompanying a description of the biographies we had students do. How many can you name? You've met most of them, if you've been following this blog, but they may be hard to recognize. I've tried to find images from the time these various luminaries were involved with The New School - in many cases before they became luminaries! - so even the recognizable ones might not be so immediately.

(Clockwise from lower left: composer John Cage, choreographer Martha Graham, fashion designer Claire McCardell, political philosopher Leo Strauss, actor Marlon Brando, urbanist Jane Jacobs, economist Thorstein Veblen, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick, political theorist Hannah Arendt, muralist José Clemente Orozco, director Erwin Piscator; middle row: psychologist Max Wertheimer, photographer Berenice Abbott, writer James Baldwin, editor-in-chief Alvin Johnson.)

Monday, April 23, 2012


A wise woman I met in Wolfenbüttel half an age ago told me that the secret to scholarly success was being able to return with enthusiasm to something you did a decade before: that's the minimum time it takes for some research you've proposed to get done, written up, accepted for publication, actually published, read, and then finally translated into an invitation. (Needless to say, each of these hurdles is a winnow.) Even in the highly unlikely case where everything works, your work will - like the light from a distant star - seem to your inviter contemporary! And your best chance as a contemporary is to play along. So welcome back, Leibnizian Mark! In the Fall of this year I'll be giving two invited papers on my old flame (my dissertation flame, no less), one reviving an old question - Lessing's "Leibniz von den ewigen Strafen" - and one trying to connect to my current interests - Leibniz as a metaphysics for lived religion.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Views yesterday at Croton Point Park, looking up at trees, down at the Hudson shore, and south toward NYC.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

China calling

Went up for the day to Ossining, about an hour north of the city on the Hudson (it changed its original name when a prison was build there: Sing Sing), and another world! One remarkable place they introduced me to was Maryknoll, home of an order of Catholic missionaries. Their first mission went to China, and their ongoing commitments there - reflected in the very architecture of the place - make this like a Sino-Hogwarts.

The site is a monument to mid-century Catholic arts, with many striking stained glass windows, here are two, reflected (looking in different directions) in the holy water font at the entrance of a side chapel, the 12-year-old Jesus teaching in the synagogue ("in my father's house"), and a woman with Christ as he bears the cross to Golgotha.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Spring ridiculousness

The judas tree on Vanderbilt.

Wiener Klassik

At the 92nd Street Y last night, I had the great pleasure of hearing Quatuor Mosaïques, a Vienna-based original-instruments string quartet - they play on gut, and haven't been in the US in ten years, and it was very heaven. The program was three full quartets - Haydn Op. 20, No. 3 in g minor (1772), Mozart K 458 in B-flat major, "The Hunt" (1784) and Beethoven Op. 135 in F major (1826). Had one any doubts about the capacity and the sublimity of this genre Haydn established, they were dispelled, and dispelled again, deliciously. Am I reporting doubts of my own? It's true, I don't usually go to concerts of the 18th century Vienna all-stars, though I'll go for quartets by Janacek or Bartok or Shostakovich  and I always enjoy the earlier works paired with them (often Haydn). But this was perfect all by itself, complete, not in need of 20th century amplification, contrast or consummation. It's why they call it classical music, I thought to myself - a pure kind of beauty formal rather than narrative or descriptive or even just expressive, but (so!) still full of drama, and humor too.

It took me back to the chamber concerts I got to hear in Vienna when we lived there 1976-78. And guess what: Quatuor Mosaïques was in San Diego on Monday. My parents were in the audience (and we didn't coordinate!). That's classic, too!

Thursday, April 19, 2012


My brilliant fashion theorist colleague O has been working on the pamphlet the Religion-Fashion sessions a couple of weeks ago were supposed to lead to. Just in case he changes his mind about using my collage for the cover, here it is on the first draft of the cover. I'm also contributing a short essay inspired by a reference to Weber's "iron cage," tentatively (and unforgivably) titled "The unwearable lightness of being: Baxter's cloak in 2012" (!). Wish me luck!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Alvin meets Parsonzilla

Today's New School Century class was about the New School's merger with the Parsons School of Design - something which happened 42 years ago, but with which the institution and many of its members still have not come to terms. (Michael Walzer, recalling the Exodus, might note that these kinds of changes take 40 years to process.) Just recently our new president has argued that the entrepreneurial thinking of designers is vital to the "creative economy: it is time for design to become the fourth pillar of university learning. But at the time nobody was thinking in terms like these. What were they thinking? I've been reading the transcripts of some interviews the dean of Parsons conducted in 1977 with various people involved in the merger, and it's interesting stuff.
New School was interested in "diversifying" its offerings, but had not thought of a school of design. It was Parsons which contacted them, a phone call in January 1970 starting What would you say if I were to tell you that Parsons is going out of business? Indeed, respected but financially mismanaged Parsons was about to close shop, unless it found a commitment of support from some other institution in just two weeks. We don't know who else they contacted, but it was clear that nobody was in a position to make so big a decision so quickly. Except New School which, the interviewees recalled smugly, was "administratively" run and could make such a decision without consulting faculty (!). Awareness of Parsons at New School was close to nil. Allen Austill, the enterprising Dean of the Adult Division sent to check out the educational culture of the place (he was impressed), reported he knew "Nothing" of Parsons before that, beyond the Parsons table. There's a tape recording of the meeting where the merger was announced to the stunned Parsons faculty; it sounds like the press conference after a coup d'etat. The New School's Graduate Faculty was evidently none too happy either, and an old Alvin Johnson loyalist on the board of trustees thought the founder's vision of an intellectual, not a professional, place had been betrayed. This image of "Parsonzilla" from the Parsons 1973-4catalog seems a good depiction of the situation: A second-year class in illustration is given the assignment to “go home and draw a piece of a dragon – any piece.” At the following class session, the random parts are assembled to form an extraordinary mascot… In any case, Parsons soon moved out of its leased quarters on East 54th Street and into the 66 Fifth Ave. building New School had taken over from another failing institution, the Mills College of Education. It raised tuition (New School president Everett thought that a higher price tag suggested higher quality) and was able to offer a BFA. It added night and summer classes, doubled the number of programs, acquired a dormitory for its students. Where it used to send out 2000 catalogs it was now included in the New School catalog, 130,000 of which went out each season. And soon, as enrollments in New School's other divisions fell (the end of the Vietnam war reduced MA enrollments at the Graduate Faculty, and the culture of adult ed changed), it was Parsons keeping the New school afloat!

A great success story, no? Still, the cultures of whatever The New School was and a design school were and are quite different. We asked the class to debate the benefits and challenges of the merger, and all the important and enduring issues quickly surfaced, and the same quandaries: should there be more synergy between design and liberal arts curricula or less, between academic and professional? To inspire them I put up the concoction above, based on one of the pieces from More Furniture in 24 Hours by "Spiros Zakas and his students at the Parsons School of Design" (1978). We remain very much a work in progress, brilliant and unconventional, like the W Chair, which supports one sitter because it accommodates two. The photo in my starting slide, by the way (another concoction by yours truly), was taken by famed American industrial designer Charles Eames when he and his wife Ray traveled to India to make recommendations for a National Institute of Design in 1958. (One of our Parsons colleagues recommended the Eames Report as still compelling, especially in our own India-Chinaward moment.) The Eames' India Report starts with an ode to the lota, the brass water container the woman is carrying in the photo, and with the sorts of questions you'd want to ask to learn from the tradition which generated it while also rooting in it an edgy modern creativity. I imagine Austill was asking himself kindred questions about Parsons when he went up to see it... And we've been doing the same in our course as we study the New School's component visions and divisions.


And here's why I don't have a car - greener areas show density of walking destinations like restaurants, movie theaters and schools. And it doesn't even take into account public transport.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Unlike most Americans, I spend very little time in cars, even less behind the wheel. So driving the 110 miles from Del Mar to LACMA yesterday was a treat. I saw surfers and swamis, snowy peaks real and hyperreal, a Babylonian outlet center and exotic trees I've never seen in bloom...
A little mid-Sunday-afternoon traffic jam on I-5 and I was ready for Chris Burden's newly-installed "Metropolis II": 100,000 cars in motion per hour!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Friday, April 13, 2012


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spring in Del Mar

Spring is not a season I'm familiar with any more in California, and I was expecting to be surprised, especially by California poppies, but this year isn't a particularly good one for flowers, I'm told. And I should have remembered - poppies are from that northern region East Coast folks persist in thinking somehow part of California! Still, stuff's happening.