Monday, November 30, 2015

The whole nine

Okay, so the gentrification of Prospect Heights is proceeding apace - and if it were not, then being featured on the New Yorker website would clinch it. (You'd never guess from this elegaic story, which concludes that things are just changing as they always have, that this was an Afro-Caribbean neighborhood, though.) That's the building which eclipsed my Manhattan view, just the tip - as I've recently realized - of an approaching iceberg. Another dozen buildings are planned to its left as part of the Atlantic Yards (or Pacific Park, as it calls itself) and among those, this one won't even rate. It's chopped off at lower right below.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


As directed by the Guardian's review, I binge-watched the first season of Amazon's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle - all ten hours of it. It's a gripping yarn, and a chilling story. Supposing the Axis had won the Second World War, what would a Nazi-led United States look like? Had the Germans given Japan control of the West Coast, how would that be? And if there were rumblings of potential war between these two superpowers as an aging Führer approached death,
how would the North Americans caught in between react? I'm a little tired of the blandly frantic young protagonists, but the older characters have depths and surprises, and it's always stunning and often unsettling to see the imagined nipponized or nazified 1962 Americana, which is revealed slowly and cannily. (For instance: Reichshauptquartier where the United Nations building now stands? Huckleberry Finn banned, the Bible, too? I won't say more to avoid spoilers.) Can't wait for season 2!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Giant clams!

Loot from yesterday's trip (note penny at lower left for scale)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Rock on

Beautiful day for a trip to the seaside, so we went (for the first time since coming to New York, I'm embarrassed to say) to the Rockaways.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Above the fold

Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen headlines the Thanksgiving New York Times!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Never a dull day in the City!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sunday, November 22, 2015


For dinner with three of my favorite people in the world tonight, I cooked a whole head of romanesco - my first experience with the fractal food. It looks more mineral than vegetable but tastes just fine...

In the pink

Amazing wrap-around sunset, as seen from my roof when the glow in the east (right of the photo) suddenly bathed my kitchen in plum colors... and this was just the start of it. Before we were done we'd gone through more colors than a big bowl of jelly beans.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

My new westward view.

Long autumn

If you thought the Fall colors were over, you'd be wrong. Prospect Park!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Wide angle

It really is rather a fetching city at night, this one. Here's the view down toward Lower Manhattan over Washington Square Park from a colleague's apartment. The skew in the photo comes partly from my leaning out over the balcony edge, partly from the camera phone's wide angling...

Thursday, November 19, 2015


My friend H is visiting from Japan, so it's going to be a week of culture! Today we saw two things which you really need to experience first hand. The first was the enormous show of sculptures by Picasso at MoMA, the second was a long play at H's favorite New York theater, Barrow Street.
That you have to be in a space with sculpture goes without saying. That theater works because you're sharing a space (and time) with the actors is less obvious but no less true. "The Flick" is over three hours in the same unchanging set - a rundown art house movie theater, whose staff are the characters. Nothing much happens, and much of that is silence. But the experience is almost unbearably powerful... I was reminded of Grotowski's understanding of the essence of live theater: the audience is transformed because the actors sacrifice their bodies.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Took two of my first year students to the New School Archives after class today, to help them find materials for their final research projects. Learned some interesting things there.
1) There is a file in my name (since I've given the Archives all sorts of things I get my hands on, like a YOU NEVER LEAVE PARSONS teeshirt, still in its wrapper, or this mug)! 2) There is some benefit to our school's having renamed and rebranded itself so often (unlike the eponymous intellectual tabloid evoked by this New School publication of 1969): it's easier to guess when undated documents were produced! Not sure how
the new (Neue) regime will fare. Judging from the ugly new "Be a force of the new" advertising campaign, it seems already to be exploding.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Golden autumn

This Fall just won't end...

not that I'm complaining!

Monday, November 16, 2015

How should we think if we wish to think together?

Although unplanned there was something satisfyingly right about my having to use my fingers and the dust, all that's left of our chalk, for the final session of "Seminar in the City" which I'm leading. (The remainder of the class is about student projects, ushered in by a guest presentation on Sekou Sundiata's "Research to Performance" pedagogy Wednesday.) 

The names of Richard Bernstein and Hannah Arendt (at last!) appeared on my board because our final reading was by Elizabeth Minnich, who did her PhD with these two advisers, on John Dewey, at The New School. Even if she hadn't been an importnat part of the New School College, even if she hadn't gone on to do work in interdisciplinary and integral studies consonant with the ethos of The New School, her bringing together feminism (and the European tradition) and pragmatism would have been a sweet way of wrapping up The New School story.

But, of course, Minnich was here for the first stab at a liberal arts college. And her subsequent work, including Transforming Knowledge, the introduction to whose second edition we read, heralds the birth of a "New Academy" very like Lang today. The book's chronicle of the multi-faceted struggle to establish women's studies in an academy devoted to understanding "Man" offers many resources for freeing ourselves from knowledges that  ... derive from and legitimate systems of domination (25) and helping us more fully address crucial questions such as these:

What has it meant to be human? How have these meanings changed across time and across cultures? How can and should we live together not despite but with all our differences? Who are “we”? How should we think if we wish to think together? How, by whom, and to what effects is knowledge legitimated? How do thinking and knowledge relate to “the real world”? Why do such questions matter; why should we care? (6)

Minnich offers tools for seeing and engaging these questions, from using plurals and verbs rather than singulars and nouns to rethinking the Man/Nature contrast, evolutionary narratives, the very idea that there are "kinds" of humans - and religion's baneful tendency to absolutize particulars.

Arendt was no fan of Dewey's, but it was fun to show how Minnich's understanding of knowledge as made in a constant shared process (of which we can become aware, and which we can bend toward greater inclusion) brings together Deweyan pedagogy and Arendtian imperatives on the importance of "thinking." The terrifying example of Eichman's not-thinking provides a strong rationale for developing the kinds of open and participatory thinking Dewey's philosophy of education seeks to foster. I offered Minnich's view as a sort of summa of what The New School has been about - a summa not of knowledge but of understanding the processes by which we make knowledge together, and need to keep at it, lest "knowledge" become the legitimator of domination rather than the way to a more just, more human future.

Then I made a mistake (perhaps). Since it was the last session of class I'm leading, I invited the students to pair up and look back over the syllabus of readings we had just made our way through and tell me how (if) it communicated this ethos: I wanted and needed to know if what I was trying to get across was coming across, and how I might do it better. I left the room to let them discuss freely. 

Their critiques were fine but ordinary: a better course title? shorter and perhaps fewer readings? reading prompts? field trips? a fuller integration of the Parsons story? They didn't say that my readings encompassed a wide range of voices and disciplines, men and women, insiders and outsiders, scholars and practitioners, faculty and students. They didn't say that these voices conveyed the spirit of a place ever on the make, in which there was no settled view of what counted as "knowledge," and in which new knowledges and new pedagogies were regularly being tried out. Perhaps I expected too much. (It is rather meta for students in their first semester of college!) Perhaps I didn't explain it well. Perhaps it's all they know... 

But of course the class isn't finished, though my selection of shared readings is. Let's see how these ideas and issues appear in the class presentations ("model seminars," we're calling them) to which we now devote our efforts.


In "Theorizing Religion" today a lot of things came together in a quite lovely way. The readings were two responses to Eliade on sacred space, and on Aboriginal Australia: Sam Gill's "Territory" (from Critical Terms for Religious Studies) and Tomoko Masuzawa's "Dreams Adrift" (from In Search of Dreamtime). I started the class by saying "from here on, it's all dialogue - dialogue between the various theorists we read, and between theorists and the worlds of religious practice." Gill's and Masuzawa's pieces each construct dialogues of their own - Gill rehearsing Jonathan Z. Smith's critique of Eliade, Masuzawa placing alongside Eliade's Australian Religions a contemporary study of Walbiri women's iconography by Nancy Munn - and/but the way they do demonstrate different dialogisms of their own.

The discussion build on our reading of Eliade last week, but also drew in Ritual and its Consequences, which we read before that, and Durkheim, who came before that. Later many of our other authors came in, from Saba Mahmood to William James, to Ludwig Feuerbach to Meredith McGuire. Delightful!

The spine of the discussion I offered, with four words on the board, linked and divided by a wavy line:





CENTERS refers to Eliade's idea that human beings cannot live in the "chaos of relativity and homogeneity," requiring breaks in the horizontal continuity of life in order to have orientation and find meaning. BOUNDARIES names Smith's response, that spaces are important in religion but the vertical imperative is a cryptotheological assumption foreign to traditions such as the Aboriginal; meaning is made by humans setting and resetting boundaries. JOURNEYS refers to Gill's critique of Smith's view of religion as mapping as still wedded to too static a conception of space, containers as if seen from above (the god's eye view still a holdover from monotheism): what if we understood space (and religion, and meaning) in terms of the multiple overlapping trajectories of bodies and the stories told around them? DJUGURBA, finally, refers to Munn's discovery that Walbiri women's stories are accessed not in "sacred" spaces but in the midst of the everyday; the "dreamtime" is the stories is the stories' telling. Lots to discuss here, from the role and responsibility of the scholar of religion to the drama of finding meaning in a pluralistic world.

Gill and Masuzawa's ways of bringing the figures they discuss together are interesting to consider, too. Gill weaves a number of threads together in his text, like the trajectories of different Aboriginal peoples sharing land they traverse in different ways. It's a little utopian to suggest that this sharing involves no conflics, but for him it's enough to demonstrate that sharing generates no real cognitive dissonance in the reader. Masuzawa commends the way Munn, while observing on the coexistence of Walbiri women's and men's stories (both say the women's aren't as sacred as the men's), doesn't claim to offer a unified view of their symbiosis. Masuzawa's naming it seems a little more contrived.

Balagangadhara, a different kind of journey-theorist, is next!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Kugels all the way down

We had the annual faculty dinner of my little program tonight. "Welcome to Kugelfest 2015!" our host K wrote. She also furnishes the noodle kugel which gives the occasion its name, and serves it each Fall, after the same delicious Moroccan lentil soup. Many people who've taught in the program as adjuncts have joined our core group over the years, and it's always been lots of fun.

As we sat down to our commensal feast tonight, the Kugelfest tradition was explained to a first time participant, an Islamist. But what was this tradition? I remembered that K had made kugel one year, and that the next year it was kugel - of course! I recall thinking that this happened rather quickly; were we really at of course already? But it stuck, and Kugelfest it has been ever since. The power of ritual!

In recent years, the emergence of the Kugelfest ritual has been duly mentioned but not questioned, the name making it clear that kugel had always been the symbol of our shared life. This time one of our emeritus members was there after a period of years, however, and she wondered: had there not been a pre-kugel gathering? The historian of early Christianity speaks, I thought! Further religious studies questions arose, too. People remembered an unbroken annual tradition interrupted only last year (when my colleague M and I were abroad) but I was pretty sure there had been another missed year. The power of ritual! Have I mentioned that K is a specialist in liturgy?

Kugelfest it is and was meant to be, and it's kugels all the way down!

Checking my diary on returning home I find that my emeritus colleague is, of course, right. Indeed, the tradition took some time to come together. In Fall of 2002, when I had just arrived at Lang, I had people over to my place for wine and cheese. The first thing I recorded as a Religious Studies Faculty Dinner happened in the Spring of 2004, at K's place, and at it a kugel was indeed prepared. (It was my first kugel.) We met next a year and a half later, with no mention of kugel. Then in February 2008 there's record of the "kugel dinner," and in November of that same year, a first mention of a Kugelfest. Kugelfests follow in late Fall of 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013.

There may be other records, and more reliable, but six out of the last eight years we met in the Fall around the kugel and under its banner. That seems adequate to me. (I only wish I liked kugel better...!)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Vaut le voyage

Perfect perfect trip on the Staten Island Ferry - not that it isn't always a little more breath- taking than I recalled. (And did Lady Liberty always look like she was trying to herd giraffes?) The sometimes steely colors of this blustery cloud-spotted afternoon were heated to incandescence by a setting sun.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


The Lang Religious Studies Fall Roundtable ("Literary Studies in Religion I") was a blast! Deliberately blurring the lines between teachers and students as is our wont, our panel included an undergraduate, and two graduate students working on their PhDs - one happens to be teaching for us this semester, the other happens to be an alum! Who cares where people are in the pecking order right now when they have interesting ideas to share? And what a pleasure to feel the continuum, the community of growth and flowering and joy in shared discovery!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

City nightscape

I don't often go up to the shiny skyscrapers of Midtown.
They are quite a sight though!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The fallen

The last of the leaves in the Lang courtyard copse are handing on just a little longer - despite the rain! It's been a splendid show, as always. (Still a skeptic from my season-deprived childhood in sunny Southern California I half-expected it wouldn't be.) I post a few photos below, with the rueful privilege of retrospect...
November 6
November 5
November 3
November 2
October 30
October 29

This is the window from which I mostly watched, 5 November