Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Natural history

To think I almost dropped David Hume's 1757 Natural History of Religion from the Theorizing Syllabus! Returning to its subtle and not-so-subtle subversions this week has been great fun.

NHR was infamous and important in its time for upsetting the narrative, accepted in the breach by all, that human history must have started in monotheism - didn't Adam and Eve know their God? Hume's argument that polytheism must have been the earliest form of religion seems intuitive now, along with the idea that we must be able to tell a story about how monotheism emerged out of it. (Nobody mentioned that one could accept the former but think the latter the result of revelation.) Current students also aren't shocked at the idea that there is no progress in religious history, just an enless "flux and reflux" of polytheism and monotheism, human needs and ignorance by turns anthropomorphizing the forces of unpredictable nature and then exalting one of these projections to the infinite without end.

What is counterintuitive is the claim that religion, nevertheless, isn't a universal feature of human life, that it's the constantly variable result of the concatenation of human nature and (resolutely thisworldly) experience. Hume's 18th century sense of human nature seems quaint to us: "self-love, affection between the sexes, love of progeny, gratitude, resentment"? It's a richer, more interesting list than self-love and altruism, but of course the point in context is that it lacks anything like a universal penchant for religion. The variety and non-ubiquity of religion means that "[t]he first religious principles must be secondary."
Hume claims to be able to account for every aspect of religion out of thisworldly human need and ignorance. And while he doesn't think religion is likely to disappear, he does suggest that some forms of religion meet human needs better than others - the polytheistic ones! Contrary to the instincts of some of my students he didn't think polytheism a live option; he was more concerned to talk people down from overweening forms of monotheism. In closing he puts it this way:
This didn't sit so well with the class. Was Hume really encouraging "insensibility"? I explained that he shared the view of the ancient skeptics. Since human minds are ever going beyond the available evidence to form opinions which, when inevitably disconfirmed by experience, frustrate us and make us angry and defensive, it's better not to have strong opinions about things like religion. This is more easily said than done, but one way is to use the method of counterposition: when you feel yourself going too far in the direction of one opinion, counterbalance it with a strategically selected piece of evidence for the other side. Is monotheism more rational than polytheism? Maybe. But polytheists are more reasonable. Wisest of all are those who can see both sides - perhaps through an extended study of human history - without getting sucked into either: philosophers. 

I'm not convinced that Hume gets the landscape of human needs right - is there really no need for a relationship with, well, the whole of nature and its God? But I do appreciate the daring of his approach, and the wisdom of his skeptical method. (You can buy into it while still being very religious, witness Hume's predecessor and inspiration Pierre Bayle who, inspired in turn by Maimonides, employed it to clear a space for grace to speak.) I guess it also resonates with my "inconvenient truths" pedagogy, but today it was sounding sort of Buddhist, too. Human beings cling to certainties they cannot have (like "I am..." or "I believe..."), producing suffering for themselves and for others. Modern understandings of religion, as something private and pure, separate and separable from thisworldly human life with others, encourages attachment to false images and judgments of ourselves, too, as well as of others. 

I could tell some of the students thought me, like Hume, too concerned with mere "safety." Is greater "happiness ... not to be dreamed of"? Perhaps they're right... it's fun to be engaging in these debates again!

David Hume, Principal Writings on Religion (Oxford, 1993), 134, 184

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

New Job description

The university lecture course (ULEC) I'm teaching next semester.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Dance as social research

In "Seminar in the City" we've started a three-session section called "Arts as Social Research." That is of course one of the catchphrases of J's and my understanding of New School history: we think the turn to offering courses in and on the modern arts in the 1920s and 1930s was anything but mission drift on the part of a "New School for Social Research" which had lost its founding focus. "Social research" is a capacious term which embraces the study of the social dimensions of all phenomena (diachronic as well as synchronic) as well as new ways of understanding these dimensions in times of change. In the current class we're looking first at movement, then at image, and finally at sound in this way.

Our class readings were by two people who taught Modern Dance or about it at The New School in 1931, John Martin and Doris Humphrey,

and the current experimental dance program at Lang: quite a leap!
But it worked, in part because the Director of the Dance Program came to help us make sense of things. I got a better sense of what animates the current program, and I think he gained a new sense of historic resonance. But the students? They came in excited but skeptical about so apparently non-academic a venture as dance and left, perhaps, persuaded that it could indeed be a form of social research.

The case for dance as social research was made clearly in the entry John Martin, the nation's first dedicated dance reviewer, contributed to the great New School-based Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. (The course described above was given after he wrote this.) What is dance?
It's being described in an encyclopedia of social sciences because of this supra-individual character. Indeed, in the ensuing historical account of forms of dance in ancient and modern societies (including lots on dance and religion) it seems a quintessentially social thing, not just marking social experiences but giving crucial expression to them. For that matter
dance forms can teach us things about social changes before other forms of analysis appreciate them. The modern movement in dance (of which Humphrey was a leader) is more than just a reflection of changing times, however. Like other modern artistic movements it understands itself as offering a distinctively intentional experience of what Humphrey called the drama of life in its moment. I believe that the dancer belongs to his time and place and that he can only express that which passes through or close to his experience, Humphrey wrote. The one indispensable quality in a work of art is a consistent point of view related to the times.

Fair enough, but that was a long time ago. Does anyone still see (modern) dance that way? Does anyone at The New School? The current program in Dance at Lang is distinctive among college dance programs in many ways. One is a suspicion of canonical ways of understanding dance, in general or in its modern and contemporary forms. As the program director explained, the New York location enables them to invite practitioners of all sorts of techniques and understandings to teach: students get to be part of an ongoing experiment. Is it social research? The program doesn't use that phrase but its courses frame dance making as a series of investigatory acts, an arena for research and discovery: close enough! At the New School dance is still a way to think about the world.

John Martin, "Dance," Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences,
ed. Edwin R. A. Seligman and Alvin Johnson, vol. IV (Macmillan, 1949), 701, 706
Doris Humphrey, New Dance: Writings on Modern Dance,
ed. Charles Humphrey Woodward (Hightstown, NJ.: Princeton Book Company, 2008), 5-6

Sunday, September 27, 2015


I saw the "blood moon" from my roof, but it didn't look like this. (I'm still without a new camera, though I doubt many cameras could capture so faint a light). The supermoon's color was not red but a light ochre, the color of dried blood. But still, very exciting that a cloudy day opened its sky for a bit. What struck me as the coolest moment came a bit before the full-on red/brown disk, but nobody seems to have posted a picture of it. (Our clouds closed before I could see its coda.) The last bit of the moon to be hit by sunlight, the lower right, was still so bright that the red light curving around the earth wasn't visible... except as a reddish crescent, open on the upper left. Reminiscent, I suppose, of many a sci-fi book cover of a different phenomenon - a light breaking from behind a celestial object - it conveyed enough depth to let me feel the so rare alignment of sun, earth and moon this way.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


 BBG Saturday again! And the season for my favorite filament-seeds...

Obstructed view

Well, I wouldn't be a scholar if I didn't also tell you when one of my hypotheses is disproved. The certificate below (found here) decisively disconfirms my excited hunch that people inside the Benton Room could see the lights of lower Manhattan - its windows are south-facing - which then somehow resonated with the city scenes on the walls facing the windows and even seemed to spark with the energy coursing along the aluminum-painted frames. Sorry folks (well, mainly, sorry fantasizing me), by the time The New School opened its 12th St. building, the 9-story building directly to its south had already been there for 6 years. The Benton room was on the 5th floor: open and shut case. Pity, though.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Mysterious beings of the underground

I dunno what it is, but I kinda like it. Art at the 28th Street N/R station.

Building bust

My Empire State Building view is definitely doomed, sigh. The 15-storey apartment block rising in its place (pictured below from Vanderbilt) means that even from my roof the Manhattan cityscape will be gone. I'm heartbroken. But I hope against hope that the ESB will still be visible when my dearest friend from China arrives here on Columbus Day, October 12.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Gaia for the perplexed

New School hosted the prophet of a new religion today, the author of Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010). I thought since we're an academic institution (and he's in religious studies) that he'd dwell on the "dark" side of emerging environmental consciousness, as promised in his book (an excerpt below) but it was pretty much all rainbows and butterflies. True,
he started with Val Plumwood's liberating discovery (when she was nearly killed by a crocodile) that she was "prey," but there seemed no downside to people who combined borrowed and invented rituals with romantic conceptions of wilderness, so long as all was undergirded by a naturalistic appreciation of interdependence. While I appreciate his insistence that many folks who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious" in fact behave a lot like the "religions" from which they claim to have freed themselves, he let his "dark green religion" types off easy because they're grounded in world-affirming science rather than life-negating monotheism, their anthropomorphisms comparatively harmless because of scientific humility. I like the biosphere as much as the next person, but as a religious studies person I'm unsatisfied by any account of a religious movement's growing solely because it's, well, true. Why these formulations here (worldwide - really?) and why now?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


By a most splendid bit of serendipity I have a swish new phone! My old phone, on its last legs, finally gave out on Thursday, going into an endless loop of almost booting up. By chance I mentioned this to a friend who works in the Dean's Office and she asked my my carrier.
T-Mobile, said I. Then se had a phone for me, she said, never used, which has been sitting in a drawer at her place for a year and a half. (She got it on warranty when her first one had a problem, but had switched to another carrier when it arrived.) Strangely, she thinks it's a gift that she's able to give it away!! I'm dazzled. It's bigger, faster, brighter, thinner and still lighter than my old one, and I'm able to do Pleco and even  on it! The camera's not bad, either, and helped me to the perfect wallpaper, the mosaic mural created by Uruguayan sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca for The New School's 11th/12th Street building extension in 1961. A little busy but it's home. Thanks, K!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sailor's delight

Some serious sunsetting this evening, northwest to west to southwest, from the view out the back window of my flat to the one out the front.

Monday, September 21, 2015


It was "Beauty and Use" day in my first year seminar today. We read Horace Kallen's rather dense 1939 article by that name, distilled from the identically named course Kallen had been teaching at The New School at least since 1924-25 (above). I've taught about it before, but this was the first time in a seminar setting. It serves several functions. Historically it's a bridge from the founding generation's pragmatist sense of the demands of the new (which we encountered in Dewey's Democracy and Education) to the New School's revised identity as a center of social research in the modern arts: our next three classes focus on new forms of movement, image and sound as social research. Disciplinarily it's our taste of philosophical aesthetics (the class is introducing writing in many disciplines and modes), and its invocation of Keats' famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (above) allowed us to spend some time with poetry as well. (One student proved to be an expert reciter of poems, even though she'd not seen it before.) It's also the first of several readings which are the published versions of influential courses taught at The New School. I'm also trying to get students to see and seek out the sorts of influences, contrasts and connections which college-level reflection demands. So we spent much of today talking about "pragmatism" and how similar Dewey on education is to Kallen on art.
Even without a renewed exposure to Dewey (and the Deweyan legacies I'm encountering at Teachers College) I'd try to get students to figure things out, link to things they learned before, notice shared arguments and points of reference, but in a room full of people who've just read Dewey I couldn't help frequently pointing out how what we were doing was just what we'd read about... For several students I could see the "Aha!" when I showed them the pamphlet of Kallen's from 1932 at left. "You know what the title refers to," I said, and then they remembered, yes they did: Dewey's argument for "immaturity" as a power of growth which should never be left behind makes reference to humanity's distinctive "prolonged infancy." (In fact, Kallen's argument is a little different, close to Dewey's critique of education disconnected from life, but not couched in quite the same terms; for Dr. Kallen "infancy" is a state artificially maintained by finishing school-like colleges which shelter students from the real-life experience which alone makes learning meaningful and, perhaps, possible. None of our early faculty had much interest in "traditional" college age students...)

And a final connection - more a sort of parallel, framed by the meeting of the parallel lines half a century later. We also read Frank Alvah Parsons' 1911 address "Art in Advertising" which, in a completely different setting, argued against the idea that art can and must be for its own sake. His view that applied art is no less art for its achievement of some other purpose (like convincing someone to buy something) was interestingly like and unlike Kallen's more abstract argument that beauty is a moment in the adventure of use. I personally think Kallen's argument ("Beauty is accomplished use; use is beauty in the making") a little more profound, but for present purposes it's enough to have raised the question if the New School's turn away from traditional conceptions of knowledge and education can lend its later merger with Parsons a retrospective fitness. Pragmatism and "design thinking," who new?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Frightened arugula

I'm told on good authority that I'm not not a "foodie." (I like cooking, and never the same thing twice, is that so bad?) I'm stumped when people say "you live in Brooklyn, you must know a lot of great restaurants." Um... I think the best food is the tasty homemade combination of common seasonal ingredients. Oh well, all can enjoy the delectable tidbits at the Brooklyn Bar Menu Generator!

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Did I go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden again today?
It's Saturday... need you ask?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Eyeful tower

Glorious bright afternoon so I checked out the new Whitney, between the Hudson and the wooded south end of the now substantially view-deprived High Line, with splendid views out in all directions and inaugural show "America is hard to see." (Judging from the photos I took, I find the mid-century easier to make out.)
Joe Jones, American Farm (1936), Donald Judd, Untitled (1966), Robert Bechtle, '61 Pontiac (1968-69), Louise Nevelson, Dawn's Wedding Chapel II (1959), Richard Pousette-Dart, Within the Room (1942).

Pedagogical Project

The MetroCITI seminar started its Fall meetings today. I was one of three participants sharing our thinking about a "pedagogical project" we're pledged to explore in one of our classes this semester. My project is tentatively called "'Religion making' and Students' Prior Learning," and it was wonderfully helpful to have to explain it quickly (ten minutes) to friendly folk from other schools and disciplines, and even more helpful to get their reactions and suggestions.

"Students' prior learning" is one of the key categories of our seminar. Learning happens only when new knowledge successfully grafts onto old, generating always different tensions, displacements and rearrangements with it, and the more a teacher knows of her students' prior knowledge the more effectively can she facilitate new learning. (The same goes for the teacher's prior knowledge.) The voluminous literature on "teaching and learning" pays remarkably little attention to this prior knowledge, however. Hence, in part, MetroCITI, one of several projects committed to finding ways of "surfacing" prior learning in the service of better education. ("Surfacing" here is a transitive verb.)

In religious studies "prior learning" is tricky. School instruction on religion is rare to non-existent in American students' experience, so what students know isn't religious studies. My training inclines me to dismiss it as a dangerous distraction from the work of academic work, faith-based and first-personal rather than evidence-based and critical, but I've been coming around on that one. It's only in this seminar that I'm learning to appreciate what students bring as learning. I had recognized that most of my students aren't aspiring scholars or religion, nor do I need them to be. Like the students of most religious studies courses, they are there for often spiritual reasons of their own. My first step was to realize (decide) that these aims and those of the academic discipline I teach can be compatible.

But the discipline has been changing, too. If my suspicions of students' unschooled religioisities were overdrawn, so perhaps was my confidence in my discipline. We're several decades into a fundamental critique of the academic study of religion is naive, ideologically complicit with Western colonialism and its legacies, and much less neutral than it supposes it is: the academic categories of "religion" it advocates are, it is argued, irreducibly Christian in origin, Protestant, and probably shaped by contingent experiences of political liberalism too. The academic enterprise is the more necessary, and the more valuable, knowing that even our modern American understandings of religion, spirituality, secularism and science are not universal. So I've been working on surfacing my prior learning - and its weaknesses. 

At the same time, scholars - including scholars in religious studies - have been helping us understand just how much more thoughtful and creative religious practice is than people used to think. Far from being "blind" followers of uncritically inherited beliefs and practices, we now expect to find agency, discernment, decisions about choices of inheritance and practice at every level. The "lived religion" movement which I've been following for a few years is one of the places where this is most explicitly thematized. As Robert Orsi reminds us, scholars navigate the same territory "between heaven and earth" as the people we study, both as individuals and as scholars.

All of this came together for me (though it was only making today's presentation that it became fully clear to me) in the idea that my students bring bona fide religious studies learning with them to my classes, even if they've never studied religion academically (or at all). "Lived religion" is not the same as religious studies - it asks different questions and is seeking different sorts of result - but it is more like it than I'd been able to realize. It asks questions, it sifts and compares, it tries things out. It has known and unknown loyalties, works with more and less explicitly held definitions of truth and value, but it seeks to correct its blindnesses.

So we get to my pedagogical project, which uses the category of "religion making" to analyze (appreciate and critique) both what religious "practitioners" and scholars of religion do. In today's presentation I introduced it this way:

draw in students’ prior learning to get them to see “religion making” as something happening on different scales and in different settings—the academy, the law, the media, and/but also lives of communities, families, individuals. My hope is that this makes more explicit the ways the academic study of religion can build on, complicate and enrich students’ prior convictions, experiences, hopes and fears. I would like my teaching to speak to students’ personal motivations while also allowing a focus on the distinctiveness, and the distinctive contribution made by, of academic study.

More easily said than done but worth a whirl. I'll let you know how we fare!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Spatializing the Benton room

Talking to my friend J today about finally seeing the Thomas Hart Benton murals at the Met on Monday, I was able to complete some thoughts which started forming there... though the complete thoughts take the form of questions. As I mentioned, you don't quite feel the closure of the murals in the current display, which - understandably - lets viewers flow through the room to other galleries. (I'd briefly hoped, when someone in one of their videos reminds us that the Met is a museum full of period rooms, that they might do that here too.)

But still, being able to get close to them and feel their energy, is huge. I felt for the first time how overpowering it must have been to see Benton's figures tensed, stretched, bent, reaching and dancing behind the heads of the people sitting across the original board room table from you! (I recall the effect of seeing people against its companion Orozco murals for reference.) Not to mention all the machines doing their turbocharged thing. Old photos from the day, being black and white,
don't prepare you for the explosive color. These wide-angle shots also don't give you any sense of just how small the room feels, when its walls are aquiver practically floor-to-ceiling with mural with special illumination coming from under a dark red ceiling, the presumably black doors shut. I told you I got the squeeze-like connection of the murals by holding my hands up to block the exits where the windows would have been, but now I wonder what work the windows performed in the
original space. We know the curtains were clear blue, but now I want to know what view they let in - or didn't - and so the questions begin. What did one see out the window, by day and - even more, since it was a night school - at night? Could it be one saw the skyline of lower Manhattan by day, its lights by night? If so, the electric charge exploding from the central "Instruments of Power" mural will have claimed that sparkling new landscape as it careened back into the room. And the big
city scenes on the wall facing the window would have been balanced and amplified by the city itself. Yes, amplified is the word. Energy will have been coursing around the room, not just (as in individual panels) up and down, into the depth and back. And those amazing 3-D aluminum lightning spurs, glancing along mural and window frames before shooting into the paintings... which, it turns out, are older than the specific content of Benton's murals! Without the distractions of its new home in the black-floored cloisters of the Met's American modernism galleries (BTW: is the wooden floor of 510 maybe still the original Benton room floor?!), I'm imagining the space in whole new ways. How do you see it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Went to Princeton today, for an evening remembering Victor Preller. Victor, one of my great teachers and friends, passed away almost fifteen years ago. The event took place at All Saints Episcopal Church, where Victor was a Priest Associate, and where an extension of the sanctuary is underway with money he left the church. Speakers waxed eloquent about his career as a professor, the significance of his scholarship and his inspiration as a priest. There was music too, including a Bach chorale for organ which spirited me back to Victor's living room, its walls floor-to-ceiling CDs, and the sweet transport of listening to music together on his tall 3-D sound speakers. I was humbled at how much people remembered, and how fuzzy my own memory has become. What a gift, then, to share and refresh recollections, and rekindle my wonder at how deeply and in how many ways Victor Preller was able to touch so many different people. Jeff Stout offered a lovely image for the relationship many of us have to Victor intellectually: his seminars provided the platform on which we still dance. In gratitude.
(The top picture is George Inness' 1891 "The Home of the Heron," Princeton Art Museum)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Vanishing West

A big crane has appeared in the middle of my view Manhattanward. Having established that it's for a construction site on Vanderbilt and Pacific, I think my views of the Empire State Building are numbered. The new apartment complex won't be as high as the one which blocks out lower Manhattan, at least, but it's sad to think that all I might have left of the Manhattan skyline is that featureless bar on the right...

Dewey eyed!

Can I just say what a pleasure it was to get seven pairs of my first years (we were having small tutorial-like meetings) to realize that these lines
in John Dewey's Democracy and Education actually say what they seem to be saying? (From the first edition [1916], p. 52, available here.)

MTA expansion!!!

Recognize this map? It's out of date! Yes, for the first time in a quarter century, the MTA subway system has grown. But please don't ask how much adding a little spur on the 7, so that it reaches the hopping west side of Manhattan, cost. And don't ask about the Second Avenue someday subway. And, if you can help yourself, please please don't mention that Chinese cities add whole networks in much less time. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Holy Grail

One thing I was chagrined to miss during my year away from New York City was the Metropolitan Museum of Art's special exhibition welcoming Thomas Hart Benton's "American Today" murals to their collection. In anticipation of eventual permanent display in the old Whitney building at some point in the future, the Met reconstructed the room at The New School for Social Research for which the murals were created, for over half a century, defining the spirit of the place. I'm going to be ok. The show (very fine, I'm told) is over, but the murals are still on view: they have a room to themselves in the American modernism section - indeed, they're likely to be the first thing visitors see as they enter. They really are a sight to behold, and my pleasure looking at them mixed happily with that of people discovering them for the first time. Maybe this will turn out to be one of the Met's faves! I was not, of course, discovering for the first time, or even seeing them in the flesh (well, tempera) for the first time. I've been on their scent for over five years, convinced they embody a significant part of what The New School was about, almost completely forgotten. I paid many a visit to the lobby of AXA Equitable a few blocks south of MoMA, where they spent much of the last quarter century, albeit high on a big wall rather than enveloping one in a small space. They're part of J's and my New School history course, naturally; I've also used them in my class on lived religion in NYC, and J and I shared them in a presentation on history and community. (We even saw a lousy movie in which the murals had a short cameo.) The murals were the favored backdrop for publicity scenes -
the way The New School communicated its distinctive character. To get a sense of what the room - 510, now very spare - looked like when the murals were there, I even taught myself Google Sketch-Up and made a 3-D model. I confess to being a little obsessed, even possessed...
So what was it like, seeing the murals up close and personal? Almost perfect. I noticed how the pieces fit together, how the amazing aluminum frame-like spurs - like bolts of lightning - animate and unify the work. I discerned that the murals were meant to be seen from
sitting (they were for a conference room, later used for classes and events). I discovered that the woman in the City Scene with the preacher, burlesque, boxers, etc., has her eyes closed - she may be the only figure not in motion. As I sat near the middle of the room, facing the more stylized "Instruments of Power," I suddenly found myself imagining what it was like when the francophone scholars of the Ecole Libre met here - I imagined being just feet from them, just a few feet more from the paintings crowding us with a big American embrace.
In fact, the experience of being in that room must have been heady, more than a little claustrophobic. You don't quite get that in their present display, where the doors and windows open to other galleries. (Also the ceiling is a little too high, and the lighting different from the original - this isn't quite one of the Met's period rooms.) But I found that if I held my two fists up on either side of "Instruments of Power" while standing in the entry the murals swiftly wrapped themselves around me, a quite overpowering experience. You try too: it's room 909.