Saturday, December 31, 2016

Friday, December 30, 2016

Refuge from the dark forest

I'm neck deep in the final volume of Liu Cixin's sci-fi trilogy, which started with the brilliant Three Body Problem. I've been reading it as translations appeared: the first volume in Shanghai in Spring 2015, the second (The Dark Forest) traveling in China at the start of this year, and now the third. Well-written sci-fi with an unfamiliar historical horizon is not a bad way to stay sane at this time where the imagination can't keep up with immanent future possibilities.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Back in winter

Back in Brooklyn, where a gloomy day of rain lit up just as it ended!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Au revoir, San Diego!

Out the window of the JetBlue flight back to New York, we were afforded a last view of places of delight: Del Mar, at upper left of the photo on the right, with the glorious Pacific, and Borrego Springs, at upper right of the photo below, the start of the desert Southwest. You can find snow in both pictures, too!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Borrego Palm Canyon

bighorn sheep, chuparosa, California's only native palm, and ocotillo!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by

We're spending a day in Borrego Springs before heading back to New York. Anza-Borrego was our friendly local desert when I was growing up - just two hours away across the Santa Ysabel mountains. It's there that I learned that deserts aren't desolate wastelands but laced with ecosystems of ingenious animals and plants, building usually nocturnal lives through expert use of every drop of moisture they could find. I learned to see every twig, every burrow hole, every track as a little triumph of survival. You may have heard about the miracle of Spring flowers, unrolled like carpets after rains. But the triumphant symbols of the desert community's savoir vivre are the ocotillo, whose spiny branches (twice as tall as a human being) will shimmer with delicate lobes of green if there's any water - we saw a little of that today - and glorious torches of red blossoms at top. I saw one set of buds today; perhaps there'll be more tomorrow!

Ricardo Breceda's oversize rusty sculptures of animals have arrived in Borrego since we were children, and are pleasing in their way - photogenic, certainly! But I include the picture above so you notice the sky, the last sun of day climbing over the hills in the distance. A few hours later the clouds will have sidled away, leaving a near perfect hemisphere of stars overhead. How to describe it? Malouf and Saariaho's "L'Amour de Loin," a lovesong to the sea, has this exchange:

(qui continue à s'agiter, et se penche au-dessus de l'eau) 
Pèlerin, sais-tu pourqoui la mer est bleue? 

Le Pèlerin 
Parce qu'elle est le miroir du ciel. 

Et le ciel, pourquoi est-il bleu? 

Le Pèlerin 
Parce qu'il est le miroir de la mer!

It's a little pat, but I like it. And it's a little like what the night sky in the desert feels like, enveloping and not distant at all, stark and grand but somehow kind, and containing multitudes. Explaining the joy of living in New Mexico I used to quote a line from Willa Cather's Death comes for the archbishop - "Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky" - but I'm feeling something more symmetrical, reciprocal.

How easy it is to forget the one house of being in which we all live, what a privilege (alas) to have the chance to be reminded of it.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas

This year's Del Mar nativity (you've seen the set before), among surf-tossed shell survivors retrieved over the years along Torrey Pines beach - one a delicate sand dollar.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Completed my season of Saariaho by inviting my parents to the encore screening of the Metropolitan Opera's new "L'Amour de Loin" in HD.

It was their forty-second Met in HD opera! I've been only a few times, and still don't know what I think about it. I mean, I'm delighted that many more people have a chance to see opera, including a taste of the excitement of live performance, and it's fun to go behind the scenes to hear the performers in interviews during the intermissions, etc. During the opera itself the busy camera also lets you see things not usually part of the opera experience (especially if you're up in the Family Circle with the hoi polloi), from details of sets and costumes to close-ups of faces straining to make those glorious sounds.

I was happy to have a chance to see the parts of "L'Amour de Loin" you could only guess at from the Met's Family Circle - where I was for the premiere three weeks ago, dazzled by the shimmering set and the music welling up from the pit (the sound is best in the Family Circle, I'm told), but from that distance the three performers were tiny and their few movements made for a defiantly static scene. I also wanted to see if the story and libretto seemed less, well, facile. So?

The HD production couldn't convey the beauty of the sea of constantly shifting LED lights or the stately movement of the singers across it in small and larger craft. In exchange we got to see the singers up close and personal, squirming with perhaps too much effort at emotional realism in their constricting spaces on the abstracted set - and the choruses parked uncomfortably beneath the waves. The music, however, familiar on second hearing but still new, was enveloping and lovely. And I came to see how the Kahlil Gibran-like words by Aamin Malouf, full of tidy paradoxes and inversions, fit with the way Saariaho's music works. Even the final scene, when the riddles stretch toward transcendence (God, as love, goodness, pardon, passion, becomes heartbroken beauty Clemence's "amour de loin"), makes a kind of sense riding the ripples and surges of sound on which the characters and their not-quite-human yearnings have been floating all along.

It's not quite my kind of spirituality but the opera beautifully conveys the life-distancing purity which is its theme. Does it do that better in the jewel box stillness of the Met, where the music and lights are the sun around which the singers orbit like little planets, or in the more personable format of HD, with billboard-size close-ups? In the former, Clemence ascends into, well, the firmament of grand opera. At Edwards Mira Mesa Stadium 18, Susanna Phillips' radiant face came home with us.
What they say about the iPhone camera appears to be true...

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Back in Southern California nothing seems to change - but it does. If the light seemed different as I walked down to the coffee shop this morning, it's because a huge Torrey Pine has just been cut down. (You can see the last slice of trunk in this picture; by afternoon it too was gone.) With it went the amazing cactus which was scaling its heights. Remember?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Sea to shining sea

On my way to San Diego via Boston, I spotted a fellow east to west traveler reflected in Long Island Sound and deathstar-like Indianapolis.


I just received word that some of the papers at this Spring's colloquium on the work of Michel de Certeau will appear as a book next March, mine among them! All contributions have been translated, and the
colloque's curious geographical-linguistic panels have been replaced by a new editorial structure. No longer a voice in the wilderness of the "non-indoeuropéen," I'm now part of "L'inspiration chrétienne." Pas mal!

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Had a lovely brunch today with some old friends, including my erstwhile Mexican housemate V, who became a mother just a few weeks ago.

V's husband was surprised that we spent nearly three hours without ever discussing the president-elect. Me too. But talking about him is precisely what fuels the Trompe. And yet, how can one not? All bets for the future are off, and history of the most dramatic deadly sort seems about to come rushing in. I've started each class since the election by writing NO BUSINESS AS USUAL on the board, but even that has started to seem an acquiescence, a normalization. What to do? How to be?

For a while now people have been describing DDT as an "existential threat." That's a way of saying that he is qualitatively, not just quantitatively, different from any crooked leader we've had before, that his brazen disdain for the principles and processes of our democracy represents an unprecedented danger to it. That he will knock out years of progress in becoming a more perfect union. He's the free rider problem pur. It's existential for democrats (not just Democrats) because the ways we understand citizenship - upholding the principles and processes, most impressively in ensuring "smooth transitions" between regimes - seems to play into his hands. And yet what else can we do? Join him in trashing the common good? He loves our distress, feeds on chaos and acts of desperation.

I was sleepless last night at the breath-taking bad faith of his claimed mandate, and his using it to assemble a cabinet of hired assassins. Even had his win been as big as he claims (should there be any doubt that it wasn't, see the Times article from which this diagram is taken),
he wouldn't be entitled to take a wrecking ball to the whole system. As though it didn't matter who people actually voted for, or would have had they been able. As though it's not about being for, by and of the whole people. (I know, it's not just him; as demonstrated most conspicuously in North Carolina, the Republican party has been playing foul for years, content and confirmed as a minority ruling party.)

The phrase that came to me, a refrain, a plaint, a plea, was this: "It's not yours." America's not yours to play with, not yours to squander, not yours to upend.

This grew to encompass more than the shameless claim of a mandate in this election. To him and those happy to join his administration of thugs: it's not yours. The achievements of past governments (for instance in working out an international order, citizen protections and environmental responsibility) aren't yours to mock, mangle and monetize.

It kept growing. To those who supported him hoping he would restore a white America: it's not yours. America's never been white - though those who profited from the expropriation of land, the genocide, and formal and informal enslavement of peoples, were. Whitewashing that history is the surest guarantee of further injustice.

And more, thinking of those who will die because of feckless resistance to climate science, not only human but other-than-human: it's not yours. This land (and this planet) belong to all its denizens, we late-arriving balance-destroying last of all.

And finally, thinking again of the impunity of the wealthy, the dismal feeling that DT and his cronies and fellow travelers will get away with it: it's not yours. Nothing can be yours or mine, not in the exploitative winner-take-all way you understand. As the anarchist Proudhon said, all property is theft! Or as Pope Francis reminds us Christians are supposed to believe, everything is but a trust given us by God for the common good - a good not restricted to the powerful, the "smart," even the human.

It adds up to an existential crisis for me not just because of the tawdry timeliness of our trickster tyrant but because, of course, I'm addressed by many of these it's not yours accusations too. Prosperous and privileged enough not to be losing sleep every night over the widening horror, I have a special responsibility to live out the decency our leader-to-be lacks.

If the desperate, the duped and the cunning think responsibility for and to the common good is for losers, then lose I must. And I must learn from this how many others have lost so much more and for so much longer. And I must do what I can to restore and rebuild the trust and truthfulness, the fair play and generosity and humility, the celebration of our unprecedented plurality without which our ideals are meaningless.

Perhaps by the time V's daughter is old enough to make sense of things, we'll be on our way to living more fully, more consciously, more responsibly and joyfully into it's ours.

Final syntheses

Here are some more of the "final syntheses" from this year's "Theorizing Religion." The one above may or may not be a reference to a series of post-Copernican metaphors we followed, starting with Feuerbach's "each planet has its own sun." You can find more of the exquisite collages by Ines Gurovich - the ones she produced for us (below) move from imposed prefab religions to the lessons of introspection and nature - here. The watercolor beneath chronicles the student's progress - if progress it was! - from "what is the definition of religion?" to "what is a definition?"

Not all syntheses were visual, of course. One student managed wittily to capture all the major elements of our theorists and discussions in terms of "breaks." One described how the class had provided tools for making sense of the situation in Syria. Another described how the course had taught her, an atheist, how to respect religious people. Another copied out quotations from the notebook in which she jots down lines from the readings which she didn't notice until they came up in discussion, a lovely concretization of this seminar thing we're doing. We learned lots!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Wohin, wohin?

Met Friday nights have more adventure now! One can start at the Met Breuer (erstwhile Whitney) on 75th Street, where one might enjoy the Berggruen collection of works by Paul Klee (this is "Wandbild aus dem Tempel der Sehnsucht dorthin" (1922, which somehow spoke to my discombobulation as the DT nightmare fractals demonically out) and then walk a few blocks to the main building, now known as the Met Fifth
Avenue, where one might find the huge Neapolitan nativity scene under the big Christmas tree (note the Putti running down the steps toward a ledge like hang gliders, presumably to bring the glad tidings to all).

From our house to yours

View out our holiday-festooned window of a chilly winter morning.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Cathedral mounts

Veronica della Dora's Mountain: Nature and Culture (Reaktion, 2016) is a gem. While perhaps too Europe-focused for my class, it's a wonderful account of changing western understandings of mountains. I'd known that the Alps had been seen as chaotic and ugly before their reclamation as sublime in the 18th century, but it hadn't occurred to me that it was only with the advent of geology - and the opening up of "geological time" - that they came to be seen as historical, changing, eroding, ruins. In fact I hadn't realized that I appreciate mountains as ruins in much this way! della Dora includes images and quotations from all manner of fascinating engagements, some of which strike me as things I must have read before, even as I know I haven't. Here's one:

[Mountains] are the great cathedrals of the earth, with their gates of rock, pavements of cloud, choirs of stream and stone, altars of snow, and vaults of purple traversed by the continual stars. They seem to have been built for the human race, as at once their schools and cathedrals; full of treasures of illuminated manuscript for the scholar, kindly in simple lessons to the worker, quiet in pale cloisters for the thinker, glorious in holiness for the worshipper ... 

That's John Ruskin in 1856. Who knew that his Modern Painters devoted a whole book (book V) to mountains? della Dora writes:

For Ruskin, mountains were the highest and most tangible expression of divine love: first, mountains served to purify the air; second, they sustained the flowing of rivers; third, and most significantly for Ruskin, they had been created to delight humans, to awaken their poetic and religious consciousness. ... As for geologists, for the art critic mountains were magnificent and insistently material objects, but they were also frail and perishable. Like a building, they deteriorated over time. Their histories were ones of endurance and destruction, of eternal decay. ... However, the difference between human architecture and the divine architecture of mountains was that while with the former 'the designer did not calculate upon ruin', with the latter, ruin was part of God's purpose 'and the builder of the temple forever stands beside His work, appointing the stone that is to fall, and the pillar that is to be abased, and guiding all the seeming wildness of chance and change into ordained splendors and unforeseen harmonies'. 

I feel a little found out by these ideas, found out because - although I couldn't have articulated them in this way - they correspond in some deep way to the way I respond to mountains. Ruskin's view has the startling truth of phenomenology, even as it is clearly culturally and historically specific: not the way all people apprehend mountains, but the way some of us do. Including me. How did those ideas get inside me?

Mountain, 197-98, quoting Modern Painters IV. 349-50, 142; illustrations from Ruskin, 195
You can read the Ruskin passages in full here: 359 (the culmination of a great ode to the superior beauty of mountains), 144-45 (where the final harmonies are, however, foreseen); her pics are at 183, 187, but this one below, at 306, celebrating an image of Ruskin's pash J. M. W. Turner of Mount Pilatus, conveys the divine artistry view rather nicely, too:

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


 With my partner back in our Brooklyn kitchen with me,
it was just a matter of time before our pal Yotam joined us!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Talk amongst yourselves

For the penultimate session of "Theorizing Religion" - the last one with assigned readings - I had students read two pieces at the intersection of academia, journalism and religion-making.

One was Faisal Devji's provocative and wise "Against Muslim unity" - which, unfortunately, fell flat. It turned out that (one Muslim student aside) nobody knew anything about Islam. (Nobody in "Theorizing" has taken or is taking our wonderful "Introduction to Islam" course, alas.) So they didn't get much from Devji's brilliant take-down of the falsely warm-fuzzy idea of the Abrahamic religions

Proponents of the ‘Abrahamic religions’ want to emphasise closeness and de-emphasise conflict. But Abraham was ready to sacrifice one son and abandon another. This is not a simple and happy family. Nor is it necessarily a close one. 

or the corrective view

Only a minority of Muslims, those living around the Mediterranean basin or the Caucasus, have grown up with Christians and Jews as interlocutors and neighbours. Historically, Islam’s primary siblings have been not Jews or Christians but Hindus, Buddhists and Zoroastrians. Unlike their Jewish and Christian ‘brothers’, Muslims are part of a polytheistic and non-Semitic world. The poor ‘Abrahamic religions’ metaphor tears away the historical experience of the majority of the world’s Muslims.

from which one might develop an appreciation for the power of secular politics to facilitate religious diversity out of non-western sources. Pity. More awareness of the complexity and richness of Islamic worlds will be sorely needed in the dark times ahead.

We fared better with the other reading, Ann Taves' "Is it the job of religion journalists to define 'religion'?" although this was a dagwood sandwich of references. Taves, a scholar of religion known for a subtle understanding of how people deploy terms like sacred/holy/special in their own lives and practices, was invited by Religion Dispatches to comment on a controversy between a journalist and a pundit around the definition of "religion." Specifically, Damon Linker had derided Mark Oppenheimer, responsible for the New York Times' (now defunct) weekly "Beliefs" column, for being willing to count anything as religion. The column which Linker (mis)read was about an analysis of activities like CrossFit as in some ways religion-like activities for the "spiritual but not religious" millennials who flock to them.

A lot of layers to make sense of, but happily our class had read the report on CrossFit which Oppenheimer was writing about, "How We Gather" by two non-religious students at Harvard Divinity School, so it was like a game of telephone: we knew where it all started, and were bemused at what came out the other end. And it was doubly familiar, not just a discussion about "our generation" but an online discussion of the sort we all love to hate... It's the world we all return to when we leave the classroom.

For my part I like the sequence because it starts with millennials trying to understand millennials, filters through the Gray Lady and punditry, and winds up in a website for religion commentary which knows that the person best able to shed light on what's going on might be a professor of religious studies! It allows of a pretty multi-faceted view of "religion making," and the place of religious studies within it. It's a fun and illuminating journey of texts, all online. Try it if you have an hour to spare. Even if you don't, you might get a kick out of what we did next.

There are eighteen comments on Taves' piece, nine people responding - of course more to each other than to anything in the original piece. I had the class perform them. I couldn't have written a better set of by turns lucid by turns ludicrous responses if I'd tried! Many of the questions and issues we've been discussing over the course of the semester are mentioned - and even our very first theorist, Jonathan Z. Smith! And the last comment, an irenic one from a woman perhaps exasperated by the bloviation about dogmatism and science and religion and Humanism and biblicism, was just where I hope my students end up:

I believe that it is up to all of us, no matter
 our religious affiliation, to define religion,
 through our actions, words, and all of what we do.

(But the lack of the most basic religious literacy, even among the students in this class, suggests we have a big problem at Lang.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Under the sea of faith

I think the student whose final reflection started with this image might have been thinking of William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience acknowledges the trouble of classification in religion thus:

Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. "I am no such thing," it would say; "I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone."

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent 3

Grand Army Plaza nativity, BBG Water Garden ice.

Saturday, December 10, 2016


I wonder if this is what it feels like to be the object of a hostile takeover. Your management is replaced by the new owner's people, but although they're in familiar positions they aren't doing the same job anymore. Unconstrained by precedent or corporate ethos, let alone commitment to past practices and workers, they case the joint looking for ways of reconfiguring things, stripping off parts, etc. Positions designed for supporting maintain some function or service become the opposite, privileged positions from which to disable the service, reverse the function. "It's called business," someone might say.

But what's facing such restructuring isn't a corporation, a factory which could be more profitably used making surveillance cameras rather than slinkies. It's government, designed to ensure equity in the economy, provide better education for all, protect the environment, take care of needy citizens, etc. The folks DT is nominating for his cabinet positions seem united in thinking the services and protections of their respective agencies unnecessary if not pernicious. Their contempt for government far exceeds that of Republican voters, if not that of the craven Republican political class.

I ask myself if I'm missing half the picture, if I need to appreciate the positive values they hold - more choice in education, more agility in labor markets, trust in the capacity of people to take care of themselves, confidence in the market's abilities to self-correct, faith in nature's abilities to regulate itself. I ask myself also if, this time eight years ago, McCain supporters were feeling a similar vertigo, a sense that everything they believed in was being turned upside down - not just in content but in very form, a system for free men who knew America to be good being replaced by a crony state run by people who thought they knew better. (Sadly there will have been many for whom an African-American president was as existentially shocking as, to me now, is an unscrupulous liar with no relevant experience or demonstrated commitment to the common good.)

But this isn't normal. It's not comparable. DT ran not just against ideas I care about but people I care about: he means them harm. He ran against the very idea of a shared common good and institutions for its protection and support. He's a barbarian and I fear for our civilization.

Friday, December 09, 2016


Shanghai is moving to Brooklyn!

Standing reserve

John Dower's Comparative Lengths of the Principal Rivers, and the Heights of the Principal Mountains of the World is a remarkable example of what we now celebrate as "data visualization": the world's highest mountains and longest rivers (as known in Europe in 1832), displayed for easy comparison. The nested triangles rising to the perfect isosceles at center represent continents: Asia, America, Europe, Africa and, er, the British Isles. I learned about this diagram from a lovely new book I'm likely to use in next semester's class, Veronica della Dora's Mountain: Nature and Culture (Reaktion/Chicago, 2016), 25. But if stacking up massive mountains is sort of funny, there's something awful about the dangling rivers arrayed above them, like the uncoiled bodies of snakes. 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Job weil done

Our university online journal "Public Seminar" has published my thoughts on Simone Weil and the Book of Job, occasioned by the performance of Kaija Saariaho's "Passion de Simone" at our college of Performing Arts. "Public Seminar" wasn't able to post the picture I recommended (mentioned in the piece), so here it is (and here's where it lives).
(This blog post's cheeky title has to do with the fact that we here have two figures whose names are often mispronounced... though in Weil's case I discovered there is no consensus. American readers might say while while scholars generally say vay; some French people - and Kaija Saariaho - say vell but others, including her son, say veil. Well I dunno!)

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Failing by design

The penultimate session of our New School history course was really the finale. We're giving students next week's class to share and present the projects they've been working, so today was our last chance in the spotlight. What did we talk about? It was a little touchy-feely.

The theoretical framework was supplied, as in past iterations, by our colleague Ann Snitow's reflections on historical memory - and why the life of movements like the women's movement seems to those who were there to be "forgotten and actively misremembered" by historians.
Snitow's concern is feminism, though she suggests that what is true of feminism may be true of liberation struggles more generally. J and I suggest that ventures like The New School share some of these traits of forgettability too, and also by design. You can tell an inspiring story about visionary leaders doing decisive things, and we often do (lots of firsts!). But the New School project is only incidentally that. Presidents and (retrospectively defined) pioneers have done much to make the New School work, but the actual life of the place is more like the messiness of progressive movements seeking inclusive stories, plural voices, open futures. We gesture to the future not with a pointed finger or a fist of triumph but an open hand.

Still, we said, there are a few things we hope will stick - we offered four for starters. J talked about the different kind of story you tell if you start with discussions in the editorial office of The New Republic, discussions which included professors (notably New Historians) but were not about or confined to university education. She the suggested that the "through line" of our history is not social science but the arts, which can serve as forms of social research but also of reflection on larger questions, more sensitive and open to ambiguity than scholarly research or design. I talked up pragmatist understandings of education and of what it is to live in a world still on the make, where experiences of knowledge and beauty and other things are stages in broader processes unfolding - and inviting participation - all around us: that's the what and the why of our commitment to the "new." The fourth candidate for stickying was what design might do if really mixed up with liberal arts, a story only now, fitfully and belatedly, beginning to be told. Stay tuned!

If ours are likely to be unsticky stories, though, what were we doing devoting a course to them? Was it just telling (and contesting) stories with little chance of changing colllective memory? Snitow's essay is chastening. It was written ten years after the publication of The Feminist Memoir Project, conceived as an effort to gather and share voices which had been forgotten. But, ten years on, the misremembering seemed to be continuing unabated. Snitow proposes the "unstickiness" of feminism as a way of making sense of this difficult reality, and offers a sort of dilemma. Does one find a way to tell a "sticky" story - though the movement in question was "by design" not that sort of thing, and will be misrepresented - or continue to gather and share memories true to what happened in their multiplicity and messiness, knowing they will remain marginal?

We mention Snitow's fearlessly honest arguments in a half-magical thinking way to give students permission to forget - but also to remember - things we've discussed and engaged over the course of the semester. Perhaps they'll remember our synthesizing points. But it came to me that what I'd really like them to hold on to is a more general sense of what it feels like to have been part of this messy stickiness-resisting experiment in progressive engagement. And I recalled a reading we assigned the last times but not this time... perhaps we should bring it back next time.

The 1940 essay "A Story of Three Days," by Gestalt psychologist and University in Exile scholar Max Wertheimer, explores the valuable but incomplete contributions different disciplines make to an understanding of what freedom is, but ends with the argument that the best account of freedom is the way a free person faces counterarguments and new facts. When in the presence of a truly free person, you can feel it. 
Wertheimer's discussion of truth (in an essay we did include this time) is similar: hard to define in the abstract, truth is something you can recognize in the living of truthful people.

In our stories may we have given students an experience of what a school striving for true openness to the new feels like.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Everything comes together

"Theorizing Religion" rocked today. A pairing of readings I first tried last year, which didn't quite work then, did everything I hoped it would and more. The readings are Yang Fenggang's influential essay on the sociology of Chinese religion "The Red, Black, and Gray Markets of Religion in China" and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan's reflection on the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College decisions, "The Impossibility of Religious Freedom." Last year I started with the latter and couldn't get anyone to engage seriously with the former. Today we spent time with Yang first - I can tell some pretty interesting stories about the Chinese religious situation - in order to have a comparative framework for thinking about Sullivan: ours isn't the only constitution claiming to protect "freedom of religion." But even before that, we spent a few minutes reviewing issues from last week's readings, Diana Eck on religious exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism and an excerpt of "exclusivist" Karl Barth's "The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion."

A lot to cover in 100 minutes - don't worry, I won't try to recreate it here! - and possible only because we're in the final stretch of a course and I was able to describe and link things through references to earlier readings, from Jonathan Z. Smith, Saba Mahmood and Meredith McGuire to Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Marx and Mircea Eliade. (It's something of a specialty of mine, this relentless relating and recapitulating.) If you're familiar with all these, you might be able to guess how they all came together. If not, I'll just tell you that by the end the "real world" relevance of old and new theories of religion was palpably clear, and the bankruptcy of the Enlightenment idea of liberal religion as an assurance of "nice" religious pluralism. Just in time for the return with a vengeance of "religious freedom" attacks on civil rights, and, perhaps, Barth-like religious responses to them.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Delayed action

My advising tutorial "Buddhism as a Liberal Art" ended today as sweetly as it began. Because of interruptions from holidays and the crater of the election it's a little hard to believe we met ten times: that many? On the other hand, it feels like we've been meeting much longer: only ten?

Perhaps sweet isn't the word. Gathered as a group for the last time, our minds turned to ultimate things. The theme for our final discussion, I'd told the class, was how one might get whatever we've been getting out of our time together in settings other than this. I primed things with a question from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's essay "Pedagogy of Buddhism":

Is it true that we can learn only when
we are aware we are being taught? 

(I found it in Donovan Schaefer's Religious Affects, a book I picked up at AAR; another work of Sedgwick's - the chapter "Pedagogy" from Critical Terms for Buddhist Studies - was actually my suggestion for this final class, before we put the syllabus aside!)

I thought we'd talk about how we learn to put ourselves in the way of new experiences, discoveries, knowledge - but also how hard it is to do. (I was thinking of Dewey's sense that education usually closes down people's curiosity.) But the sense in the room was that the idea Sedgwick was floating is not only not true, but backwards. We learn best when we are not aware of it, one student protested, let alone aware of being taught! From this it was a short distance to how one learns better outside of school, just living one's life. Suddenly the classroom came to seem the least promising place for learning to happen! Another student admitted that she'd figured out a few years ago that she could fake her way through the requirements of classes, and hadn't really been learning since. By "learning" she meant something more than performing well in class, including making good marks. You might say that, weary of playing the good student, she had come to our advising tutorial is search of liberating arts she wasn't finding at our liberal arts school.

(Make sure to look here)

I inquired what learning felt like, and we agreed that it was the falling into place of something you'd encountered before but hadn't got, what my lamented teacher Victor Preller called "the penny drops." We might have concluded that liberal arts plants seeds which sprout as your life unfolds but that seemed a little pat. The student's sense of faking it in classes raised a deeper worry, closer to Dewey's concerns but raised here about a pedagogy which claims to be Deweyan! (Her department, Interdisciplinary Science, is energetic in its commitment to "discovery science" and social justice-inflected pedagogy.) To what extent can the very intentionality of a well-constructed learning experience neuter its capacity to be truly transformative, permitting - even perhaps promoting - faking it? Is engaged, problem-solving pedagogy perhaps too earnest for the playful openness learning sometimes inhabits? Or is any "school" setting too contrived to connect deeply with a student's real life to occasion genuine growth?

Tough questions, but there was a palpable pleasure in being able to name them. And, folks reflected, that only happens in settings like this one! This wasn't quite what I was after, but of course it was gratifying. And I trust seeds were sown which will ripen in unexpected times and ways later. Although in many ways different than I expected (and very different from the last time), I dare say "Buddhism as a Liberal Art" was successful. I know I learned a lot...! I'll miss our gatherings.