Thursday, May 31, 2012

This land is my land

Funny, the president's coming out in favor of gay marriage didn't touch me the way this one-second shot in the US's first ever official tourism film did. It's a lovely little film, with a great song by Rosanne Cash called "Land of Dreams," and shows all the lovely colors of America. Whoever scripted this scene gets it. The film's other scenes are outdoors and indoors, in nature and culture, individuals, groups... Here's a public trolley, and these guys feel safe enough not just for one to put his arm around the other, but for the other to fall asleep. God bless America.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


As I make the latest tweaks to the Job book manuscript, I find myself confronting an old question I've never known the answer to. Is it a sign of bad writing if the paragraphs are not all roughly the same length? Worse, of bad thinking? On the other hand, wouldn't it be strange if an argument proceeded in so consistent a way, each step of the way the same size as the others, equally significant? The world and the things in it worth writing about aren't salami waiting to be sliced (not to mention pre-sliced like American cheese), but I must admit that much writing, including much very good writing, has a pleasing rhythm established by standard sized paragraphs.

This is only one of the meta-writing questions which occasionally detain me in pointless procrastinating reverie. One could ask the same about chapter or subsection lengths: is uniformity here a matter of style or substance? And here's another question: Should your most interesting claims come consistently at the beginnings or ends of paragraphs? And another: Should one use the past or the present tense when writing about past thinkers' arguments? And another: Should you ever use "one"?

I know, I know, let the editor decide: back to the manuscript!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Let's eat!

I had a long informative chat with two Chinese women at the India China Institute today about what to expect in Yunnan. I learned about dances and horse-rides and buses and performances but the conversation kept coming back to food. Yunnan is famous for rice noodles, I learned. And mushrooms of many kinds. Something called "stinky tofu" (above, picture source) is famous. They eat all kinds of flowers, and, one added, "worms." While I was figuring out she meant grubs and larvae, she effused that the marvelous biodiversity of Yunnan means they have a wide profusion of them to eat. I think I might pass.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Final edition

I'm becoming a fan of "markup," a feature in Word which lets you see editorial changes and suggestions from multiple sources, adopting or adapting them as you see fit. This is part of the Job manuscript which - yes! - gets sent off on Friday. The blue edits are from my university press editor, the green ones from an accomplished alum I've hired to help me get out of my Yankee Doodle editing tizzy, and the red ones are my own. By the end of the process, all the colored boxes will be gone, as I either accept or reject their advice.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Do be do be bo

Can anyone explain to me what the Book of Job stands for in this, the end of a recent column by David Brooks lamenting the lack of attention to issues of character in a discussion of elite youth about careers?

I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do. 

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job. 

"The Book of Job" is doing a lot of work here, but I really can't make out what it is. Is it that life is bigger and more tragic than our life choices? Is it that your do-gooder friends might think you a sell-out for joining Morgan Stanley but God knows your character remains good as gold? Or is it that Job shows that you can be good without doing anything? Does the Book of Job just synechdochically represent religion, the Bible, God? I really don't get it.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Chinese villages

Wow, China is, what, two weeks away? I'm putting together my itinerary, seeking out beauty and bustle. For beauty, Unesco World Heritage Site Lijiang (above) seems sure to please, a charming old town so beloved of foreign and domestic tourists that I gather it's growing! Beneath those tiled roofs are shops and b&bs along myriad canals, all festooned with red lanterns.... For bustle I'm going to try to visit one of the "urban villages" in Shenzhen which I learned about from a colleague's work. The remains of the villages and collective farms in this area before it was turned into the nation's biggest economic growth zone, thay have long since replaced fields with poorly built apartment blocks, so chockablock close to each other they're known as "handshake houses," renting to the undocumented migrant laborers who keep the city going. 

Friday, May 25, 2012


Reactions to our fashion-religion zine have so far been very encouraging. (If you want me to send you a copy, send me an address before I head out of town this coming Friday.)

I think we're going to keep the project going. Pope Karl be damned, next year's focus will be on Eastern traditions, though that can still address a wide range from (to name two things participants have suggested) the effort to design a single garment "emotionally nutritious" enough that one might wear it for a whole year to "sadhu bling" - the garish wealth with which devotees shower their gurus in India. Spring 2013, most likely! Let us know if you're interested in being part of it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Goliath wins!

I keep track of "The Simpsons" on Hulu from time to time, and just happened on a recent epsidoe chock full of religion. Season 23, Episode 16 ("Ned 'n Edna's Blend") starts with a passion play - Christ's part played by Homer (!) - and continues with the revelation that über-Christian Ned Flanders and Edna Crabapple, Bart's foul-mouthed elementary school teacher, have wed. Edna takes Rod and Todd out of the Christian school they've been attending, and soon Ned has a nightmare - in "Davey and Goliath" style! It's Todd's graduation from college, but Ned's joy turns to panic when he discovers it's "not a midwestern Bible college but an elite East Coast university!" Mortarboard-clad Toddy reassures him: "It's okay Daddy, I majored in religious studies." But Ned's relief turns to horror as Tod adds ominously: "comparative religious studies!"

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How do white people look?

Chicago-based Photographer Myra Greene has a very interesting project going called "My white friends." I read about it here and was struck by her observation: I recognize it when I’m the only black person in a room. My white friends will notice I’m the only black person, too. But they don’t notice a room full of white people. In this series she works with her friends, sometimes photographing them in a naturalistic space, sometimes in a scene where they act out what they think whiteness looks like, sometimes in compositions of her own. Lovely pictures and thought-provoking, using all registers of the photographic medium to raise questions about gaze, social location, privilege, stereotypes, friendship and, of course, photographic practices themselves.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Monday, May 21, 2012


How will we remember our unofficial reunion - posed or quasi-candid?

Sunday, May 20, 2012


And on my rooftop, a new installation, too! And there's a change in the scenery toward Manhattan, too: dome of the Atlantic Yards Stadium.
(You may recall I shared a wall with graffiti artists in Melbourne, too...)


The latest thing to alight on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum is part of the "Cloud Cities" series of Tomás Saraceno: retro-futurist  modules in reflective and clear material, at whose interstices appear some marvelous crystal-spiderwebby wonders worthy of Haeckel.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

At liberty

Saw New York with new-old eyes with several dozen erstwhile classmates from the United World College of the American West, some of whom I have not seen in decades, and thought of in even longer...  
it's a strange thing, a reunion's mix of the presumption that you remember and care about everyone back then, but aren't really committed to more than pleasantries now. 
I was very happy to reconnect with some friends I'd not seen in a while, though, and to learn about the M&M and Lego shops in Midtown.

Coda, Sunday night:
That sounds ungracious. I'm happy everyone came. Our UWC family is just that, and we keep track of each other in a way no other community quite does. I felt that strongly on Sunday morning when we released a white balloon for each of several classmates and faculty members who have passed away. The first rose quickly and headed west: "toward New Mexico," we all said or thought. A second became briefly entangled on a vent on the building at left, but someone said "he's waiting for Roger," the dedicatee of the following balloon, and so it was, somehow managing to disentangle itself in time to fly away together.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Age of longing

Today was Lang graduation, which always leaves me feeling strangely empty. Why is that? It might be the artificiality of us all dressing up in hired pseudo-medieval regalia and acting out some scene from a bad movie in a rented church - a space which hasn't had any part in anyone's experiences moving toward graduation. (We've outgrown the church on our block, so this is an unfamiliar neighborhood too.) There used to be a nudge-nudge-wink-wink quality to it, heightened by the presence of a fusty brass ensemble playing Renaissance music, as if all the assembled family members didn't know how unlike conventional schools we are... Now it feels more like the joke's on all of us in higher ed.

It might be from realizing how few of the graduates I know. Although I recognize more students than I used to, mainly because of the first year program and my faithful attendance of theater and dance performances, there still seemed a lot fewer than one might feel entitled to expect for all the teaching one does. (Not quite half of the students in my first year seminar eight semesters ago were there...) It can't be, surely, that studying with me makes people leave without graduating?! But it does in any case confirm how small a part what we Religious Studies folks do plays in most Lang students' careers.

It might also be the sense that the future's pretty scary for graduates - and has been for several years. Whatever we've done for our students, it's not enough to assure them bright prospects. I think our dean was trying to be both realistic and encouraging when she mentioned a talk she'd heard about the alternative economy of barter and sharing in Spain, where over 40% of young people are unemployed, but it's a pretty cold comfort. Our faculty speaker was trying, too, in a paean to Occupy Wall Street, the most "incandescent" political moment he's experienced (he's my age, "born too late" for the sixties), and the important contributions made to it by The New School and its students. OWS was huge for many students last semester. But I'm afraid most students will instead remember his rather grim observation that every generation has a right to have illusions of innocence, but this generation has been denied even that.

He also mentioned that he'd had several "surreal" conversations with graduating seniors contemplating their next steps, and that certainly rang true for me too. I've had many such, and with recent graduates too, who are in limbo, uncertain where to turn. We faculty are happy-sad to see students go and very happy when they come back to visit, but it's just sad when they come back in perplexity.

There's also the melancholy of the passage of time itself, which I felt most keenly seeing a student who was in the Religion and Theater class two years ago, standing with her mother and sister. I remembered that her father passed away the semester she was in our class. I'm sure they were missing him something terrible. Moments like these make not just the passage of time but its ineluctability palpable.

I'm not sure what it says (a good thing, surely), but the only really inspiring words were spoken by the student speaker. It was the most serious and best-crafted such talk I can remember and, starting in something like the scary dizziness of this moment, rose to a sober but real hopefulness. He began with Kierkegaard's argument that it's from despair than authenticity becomes possible. There followed an amazing ode to what we do, in the liberal arts and at The New School, a diverse community of individuals "not willing to settle for a life of falsity." Imagine that - a talk about the liberating power of truth and its pursuit, in 2012! Turns out we've been equipping people for lives of truth and meaning after all, and in the best way. He quoted a line from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which perfectly characterizes what we are about:

If you want to [teach people how to] build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Wise and empowering words for an age of longing.

Congratulations and best of luck to all the members of the class of 2012! Our best wishes go with you as you voyage on. You'll find the way.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


The Central Park Conservatory Garden after a rain.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I [heart] NY

On the subway tonight there were two gawky high school boys insouciantly flirting. I think they thought I was checking them out, but I was just wistful, pondering the almost unthinkably great gulfs of space and time - between New York and, say, North Carolina, between my own youth and theirs - and that they've been crossed. (Image source)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sozialforschungsinstitut Brooklyn

A propos of nothing in particular, this is a really cool image - it looks like Rube Goldberg theology! It appears (unidentified) on the website of the fledgling Brooklyn Institute of Social Research, an upstart offshoot of Columbia, combining, I sense, the lore of The New School (which on some accounts peeled away from Columbia) with the intellectual project of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (which was for a time based at Columbia). I wish them well!

(Ah: picture source - it's mid-17th century. Thanks, Frank.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

St. Hildegard

I nearly missed it - Hildegard of Bingen is now officially a saint! It happened Thursdsay, by a process called "equivalent canonization." I wonder if it will matter to all those people who, from the time of her death, have already regarded her as a saint...

Saturday, May 12, 2012


You might recall the raspberry branches which I planted... Well, you'd
hardly recognize them now! In the bright light of a lovely late Spring
 day, I find that they brought friends. Skeins of finest spiderweb are  
all over many of the leaves, tended by thrifty tribes of tiny red spiders.

(Coda: a friend who's a horticultural adept thought they were probably doing the raspberry no good, so I've evicted them. Or tried.)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Of record

Got to experience the long-enduring past and the futuristic present in quick succession today. First was a reception for Justus Rosenberg, a professor of literature who's taught at The New School for 51 years (he grew up in Danzig, was evacuated by his parents to Paris with the rise of Nazism, and fought in the French resistance before coming to the US) and is still going strong. Then there was a book launch party for theater legend Judith Malina, who started studying with Erwin Piscator at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in 1945, and still recalls it like it was yesterday. In those days before everything was recorded, she said, a director's work really was ephemeral, but she took careful notes of his lectures, and has now, 67 years later, published them - though the best thing was hearing her recreating his tone of voice! After this, and driving home how far we've come, it was time to see a graduating student's autobiographical senior project, which included not only scenes from films, television programs and her own documentary work but family video footage of her own birth and early birthdays. What will she remember six or seven decades from now?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Disposable archive of beauty

So belief systems: a pamphlet discussing fashion and religion is out! We ordered 3000 copies of the 36-page zine, slim pickin's in the world of newsprint (and less than half of our budget), but it's still incredibly bulky and heavy.
And incredibly exciting. My colleague O has done an amazing job in editing it. Send me a mailing address and I'll send you a copy - or ten!

Sooner or later - I think we're sort of hoping it will be later rather than sooner - the reader will want to find out what this fabulous object is, and will find some brief explanations. It introduces itself like this (p2):

The small newspaper format is explained in this way (p3):
And we hope to be insured against lawsuits in this way (back cover):

But really we expect people will just pick the thing up, start leafing through it, and find themselves drawn into it. Initial responses have been pretty encouraging so far - it is a pretty satisfying thing to hold in one's hand, and the spread of images and text, varying from page to page, is full of interesting surprises. I imagine that some readers will keep exploring to try to figure out on their own how this came to be rather than seek out explanatory-looking passages at start and finish.
Just between you and me, let me tell you how it did come about. (Of course you may have been following it from the very beginning, but I didn't really understand what was happening.) Over four Monday evening meetings in a studio at the Parsons School of Design, a fluid group of fashion studies, integrated design program and religious studies faculty, students, and visitors gathered to see what would happen - a good dozen each time, but with several people passing through and only a handful of us at all four sessions. The first time, we just talked, feasting on each other's company and the unexpected and delightfully parallels and parodies which emerged from our conversations. That time and the second time I brought some religion and religious studies books full of illustrations to pass around; we ended the second with a free writing exercise.
The third time my fashion studies colleague O had brought along photocopies he'd made of images from my books, books he'd found in the design library, magazines, etc., and as we talked we circled around the table with scissors and pens in hand, looking for images to annotate or retitle, and as material for collages. (The images run the gamut from fashion shoots to historical prints by way of advertising, self-help, the occult and ethnography.) The final session found the whole vast table covered in images, including our collages of the last session, and by the end of the two hours of talking and circling almost every image had found its way into a collage. More importantly, every collage had received contributions from at least two people. All of these collages were then scanned, and every one of them appears in belief systems, ingeniously juxtaposed and laid out by O.

The final images are fascinating and strange, even to those of us involved in their assembly. Nobody knows where all the images are from, and each of us knows (at most!) what the collage combinations he put together had in mind. I know what I was thinking in putting together the collage which O used for the cover (to the extent that one really knows what one is doing when collaging) - but not what the child holding the ball at lower right is doing there. I didn't put it there, but it clearly belongs.
This is a kind of collective authorship I have never even imagined, let along participated in. And somehow, thrillingly, it makes for a unified product! There is something which makes all this fit together, more than the common (if chaotic) picture sources and O's inspired layouts and the persuasiveness of the familiar product form (the newspaper), that elusive thing that sometimes happens in group improvisations...
You might think it's the text, and there's certainly some effect achieved by the alphabetical organization of prompts: ahimsa, apollonian-dionysian, atheism, being, belief, benedict xiv, cargo cults, community, conversion, corporate religion, craft, credit card, death, divination... This suggests some unity of intent at least, even as alphabetization floats entirely free of actual affinities of content. And as a matter of fact the content is every bit as much a collectively-generated collage as the images. We worked with a website which allowed several people to edit a text at once. We added new prompts in an alphabetical list, some shorter entries folded into longer ones in the final editing. During compositioneach of us was identified by a color, but here in the final product the colors have disappeared. The multiple authorship is clearer here than in the individual collages (not all of the text is grammatical or coherent) but in the context of the images this may not be a problem. (But "Weber's iron corset" is my work alone and I must bear responsibility for its infelicities.)
You should explore it on your own, but for my part I have to say that this first foray into the world of design studies has been very exciting. Academics talk a lot about different "ways of knowing" and, in other settings, about the "death of the author." This product is and isn't a way of "knowing," of modeling what knowledge is and how it is to be lived. It explodes the rigors of authorship in a mind-blowing way, even while introducing something like it in different places, like instigating and curating the final product. And ... it's beautiful! Hope there will be more like it!

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Safe crossing

Well, New School history is out of our hands. We'd decided, as much out of political prudence as pedagogical principle, that we shouldn't be the ones wrapping up the class. Instead we had groups of students give "state of the university" addresses at a kind of town hall meeting, identifying important values and legacies and visioning where we should be in ten years. This, we thought, would be a good way of letting them use what they had learned in the class, and of showing us what it meant to them. But over the course of the semester this final town hall has grown, and so today we were in a large hall, and our (packed!) audience included the president, provost, several trustees and other dignitaries. It even ended up as the University's official 92nd anniversary event!

I was worried that the students would flake, it being end of semester, group assignments not being their thing, and our class being, after all, for many of them just a requirement. But all went swimmingly! Or at least there were enough students who took the assignment seriously to provide engaging presentations, some of them were very good indeed.

Where do they see us in ten years? More integrated, both between the university's various divisions and cultures (design, liberal arts, etc.) and their students, and between students, faculty and administration. We'll be limber, collaboratively engaged and linked by data-sharing, resource-pooling, expert advising and a culture of networking which includes alumni and a faculty engaged with the world beyond the university. We'll identify with The New School and its glorious legacy of creative forebears, rather than just with our divisions. We'll also be more diverse, socio-economically and also in worldviews, in part because we'll have found a way to be less expensive, maybe by expanding to Brooklyn! (I've made the suggestions sound both more unified and bolder than they were. Surely to the relief of the president, etc., nobody took up our invitation to "think big" and recommend a virtual university, a transnational one, a free one, etc., but that's probably for the best; they need it to work as more or less what it now is, as the group whose chosen title was "YOLO: You only live once," reminded us! We may be here in ten years but they won't.)

Once I realized it was going to be fine, I was quite moved by the pairs and triads of students from Parsons, Lang, NSPE and Jazz - a more ethnically diverse mix than you get in a representative Lang event - clearly enjoying each other's company, casually dropping names and ideas they'd learned in our class, and asking for more! We didn't reach everyone, but we reached enough. And people are already asking when we'll be teaching New School Century again. Spring of 2014, maybe...

Push me pull you

The Guardian's mapping of ongoing national polarization on sexuality... a generation from now, what will it look like?

Monday, May 07, 2012

Room for more

More for the Benton files - a picture from a playwriting class, circa 1941, with Tennessee Williams (left) and Arthur Miller (right).


In that archive of municipal images, here's one of the New School building in 1938, taken as part of the Federal Writer's Project. Looks like it's come from another planet, possibly Japanese godzilla movies.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Lost in space

It was overcast in New York last night, so no supermoon for us. But I suspect it's more impressive in super telephoto images like these, from the Guardian site, which also recall my perhaps unsurprising discovery that the moon looks different from different places on the earth's surface; these two are from Auckand (above) and from Amman (below), and the Copernicus lunar ray crater is at 2 o'clock in one, 4 in the other.