Thursday, March 31, 2016

Let me speak

In "Performing the Problem of Suffering" today, we covered two things which initially seem entirely unrelated - the ancient Christian "Office of the Dead" and Joni Mitchell's song "Sire of Sorrow: Job's Sad Song." I lectured about the first, and one of the TAs led the discussion of the second. I shouldn't perhaps sound so surprised - I put the syllabus together, after all! - but the resonances surprised me. Here are two.
The first resonance concerns which passages from the Book of Job found their way into the Office of the Dead and into Mitchell's song: speeches of Job - omitted are the frame story (including the pious blandishments of its Job), the divine speeches, even Job's name. The Office braids these speeches with Antiphons and Psalms; the singer of "Sire of Sorrows" is hounded by a trio of other voices, whose words come largely from the friends. But in both cases the plaint doesn't move to a conclusion or release, and the voice moves between protest and the wish never to have been born. (The Office's Job looks forward to posthumous vindication in the eighth of nine readings before slipping back into despondency.) Job's words are used but no specific story - or backstory - is implied. It is everyman/everywoman confronting the opacity of suffering and fate, speaking out of the bitterness of her/his soul. In my discussion section we read aloud the nine texts of the Office, then listened again to "Sire of Sorrow": the texts overlap to a remarkable extent. I don't know if Mitchell was aware of the Office (unlikely, I should think) but the reflection in the other direction is more interesting still. Whatever we are tempted to observe about the power and effects of one of these we should consider in the context of the other, too. How could, why would an ancient liturgy have drawn communities' attention to such universal experiences of despair? Religion's deeper than its critics think!
The second resonance came out in connection with reflection on the power of repetition. The Office has a broken arc - it ascends to confidence in a Redeemer then falls back into despair, back also chronologically (from ch 19 back to ch 10). This is remarkable and suggestive on its own. But the Office wasn't something one heard only once. The arc ascends and breaks, ascends again and breaks again, again, and again, and again. Being part of a community one of whose important liturgies was the Matins of the Office of the Dead meant encountering the ascent, and the break, in the context of enduring cycles of ascents and breaks. In a way the moments of hope and despair are witnesses to each other, just as, I argued, the participants in the liturgy were, whether they intoned the readings or the antiphons. The voice - Job's, though unnamed and mixed with the Psalmist's, at once everyman and Christ, too, facing mortality - is perhaps that of the defunct. The vocalizers and responders are yet among the living, but, knowing of the enduring cycles of the Office, aware they will one day be on the other side - but still inside the practice. Even in the different, more solitary and silent context of a Book of Hours, the Office offers a stable language, a stable voice - a stable "I" - for those moments when people are most undone by terror or grief. These are claims I made in my book, though it was fun to have a chance to make them again, and with a live audience! But quite new was then turning to a consideration of the work a song like "Sire of Sorrow" might do for someone who listens to it, turns to it, or recommends it to a friend. The power of repetition, the TA pointed out, is built into the very structure of most songs, with their verse - refrain - verse - refrain structure.
I imagine no small number of fans of "Sire of Sorrow" are unaware of the song's origins in the Book of Job, or indifferent. The case for no small number of auditors of the Office of the Dead may have been the same. No matter. Wherever they started, these words reverberate onward, in small and large cycles.
I imagine no small number of fans of "Sire of Sorrow" are unaware of the song's origins in the Book of Job, or indifferent. The case for no small number of auditors of the Office of the Dead may have been the same. No matter. Wherever they started, these words reverberate onward, in small and large cycles.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Color comes

Lang courtyard trees, yesterday and today.


One of my favorite shirts threw in the towel today. It's served long and well - I've worn it at least three times a month for more years than I can remember. What is an appropriate afterlife for it, or a kuyou 供養?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Not too nice

Had a somewhat difficult discussion in "Lived religion in New York" class - or tried to! Students had submitted drafts for papers on what "lived religion" means and most argued that religion is irreducibly subjective, entirely individual and something nobody else has any business judging. The reflex relativism is, I've suggested before, an understandable response to difference and plurality, and probaby better than the alternatives politically, but I thought it was time to push back a little. If people's religious lives are so completely individual and self-contained, I asked first, why do people congregate in formal and informal settings, commit to creeds and practices, etc.? For that matter, if religious life is so rooted in individuality, how is this even possible? Next I wondered about how people change their religious practices? Outsiders may not be able to judge a person's practices as mistaken or ineffective, but people might say that about their past selves... again: how is this possible, if all standards come from the individual?

Reflection on how people's stories of religious change are likely to exaggerate these changes, and their suddenness, led - finally! - to students' conceding that sometimes we can see things others cannot see about their own lives. We didn't get to the academic implications (and responsibilities) here, but this was already a breakthrough. And then suddenly we'd switched from bland tolerance to critique: people told of grandparents who don't realize the contradiction between their values and what they hear at church, of a long atheist brother whose family staged an intervention when he started going to church (I'm sure he'll end up an atheist again, said his sister), and a friend whose creative integration of Buddhist and Christian practices had earlier been praised (she suffers from depression, we were told, but she won't admit it). It wasn't hard for me then to observe that judgments about religion are ubiquitous and probably inevitable - that religion is the sort of thing one can't really truly be indifferent about. So perhaps our picture of people's religious worlds needs to take this into account (why do people congregate again?!), and our idealized view of approvingly neutral observers needs a reality check.

Interesting as I reflect on it is that the shift to acknowledging our discomfort and disdain at other people's religious practices went through discussion not of weird religious practices of strangers but through family and friends. It's easy to be indifferent to people we don't know or care about, especially in the abstract. Perhaps it will be harder for students to see indifference as a form of care and respect now...? Is it too much to hope they'll come to appreciate the ways in which scholarly reflexivity can take us beyond indifference and disdain?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Like a displaced sound

Just finished Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014). It's poetry of a kind I'm not familiar with. It often looks like prose, often sounds like it, but then of a sudden dispenses with punctuation or some other convention of prose, suggesting that prose - all prose, in fact - is just a veneer, glossing over realities barely verbalizable in their surplus and absence of significance. I can't do better than share a part, the transcribing of which helped me appreciate its exquisite precision. (It's pages 131-33.)

On the train the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one. Is the woman getting off at the next stop? No, she would rather stand all the way to Union Station.

The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman's fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it.

The man doesn't acknowledge you as you sit down because the man knows more about the unoccupied seat next to him than you do. For him, you imagine, it is more like breath than wonder; he has had to think about it so much you wouldn't call it thought.

When another passenger leaves his seat and the standing woman sits, you glance over at the man. He is gazing out the window at what looks like darkness.

You sit next to the man on the train, bus, in the plane, waiting room, anywhere he could be forsaken. You put your body there in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside, within.

You don't speak unless you are spoken to and your body speaks to the space you fill and you keep trying to fill it except the space belongs to the body of the man next to you, not to you.

Where he goes the space follows him. If the man left his seat before Union Station you would simply be a person in a seat on the train. You would cease to struggle against the unoccupied seat when where why the space won't lose its meaning.

You imagine if the man spoke to you he would say, it's okay, I'm okay, you don't need to sit here. You don't need to sit and you sit and look past him into the darkness the train is moving through. A tunnel.

All the while the darkness allows you to look at him. Does he feel you looking at him? You suspect so. What does suspicion mean? What does suspicion do?

The soft gray-green of your cotton coat touches the sleeve of him. You are shoulder to shoulder though standing you could feel shadowed. You sit to repair whom who? You erase that thought. And it might be too late for that.

It might forever be too late or too early. The train moves too fast for your eyes to adjust to anything beyond the man, the window, the tiled tunnel, its slick darkness. Occasionally, a white light flickers by like a displaced sound.

From across the aisle tracks room harbor world a woman asks a man in the rows ahead if he would mind switching seats. She wishes to sit with her daughter or son. You hear but you don't hear. You can't see.

It's then the man next to you turns to you. And as if from inside your own head you agree that if anyone asks you to move, you'll tell them we are traveling as a family.

I sometimes sit in the space next to a man like this in the subway. It's like Rankine's sitting, and entirely unlike. I don't know what it is to have the unoccupied seat follow you out, to have it always in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside, within. I don't know what it's like to have a white man like me (I should say, following Ta-Nehisi Coates following James Baldwin, a man who believes he is white) sit in it as if it means something, as if he knows what it means, as if it might mean nothing.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

What a difference four days make, reflects the turtle...

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Traditions of The New

I interrupted my Spring Break staycation to head back to school today. Just for a few hours, and for a worthy cause - the third Staff Development Day kicked off with a plenary talk by my friend J and me - the New School history team! Our topic: "What does it mean to be a progressive university"? We took turns describing periods when "progressive" meant different things. J set the stage with the Progressive Movement, and all the new things (history, Republic, Negro, woman) contemporary with our New School. Then I talked about the pluralism - as ideal and practice - of The New School in its first decades, exemplified by pragmatist philosopher Horace Kallen. J then discussed the school's jittery ethos during the Cold War, already a "tradition of the new" in need of safeguarding. My turn again, the Matsunaga Affair which brought back the challenges of being truly diverse. (These last two sections expanded on our Offense & Dissent exhibition.) Finally we turned to the school's newest marketing campaign, which goes What happens when a university rethinks everything? Against the backdrop of our history this seems neither possible nor necessary nor, well, wise. One lesson of the bumpy road we've traversed is that we'll be most effectively attuned to our time and place and role only if we take our own history seriously. Our weighty talk ended on a light note, though, with Gnarls, our recently adopted - and "progressive!" - school mascot. Having a mascot might seem out of keeping with our unconventional history, but a narwhal is a most unconventional mascot. And, contrary to rumor, "narwhals are real, not magical unicorn-dolphin-clowns."

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

I'm changing my major

Every one deserved! Beautifully written, staged, acted. Ring of keys!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Monday, March 21, 2016

 What else could such blues and yellows mean than IKEA Red Hook?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Daily grind

Why coffee tastes so good in New York City: Croton Reservoir.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Plenty delicious

For the first Saturday dinner in a while, we made three treats from this deliciousest of vegetarian cookbooks, Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty: a crispy lima bean salad with greens and feta, fried tofu with a buttery black pepper sauce, and an eggplant risotto with lemon. Guests from Turkey and Sweden, Nebraska and New Orleans, a sous-chef from China, and all from a London cookbook brought to me a few years back by a Melbourne friend - worlds of fun!

Friday, March 18, 2016


My last day in Paris I went to mass at St. Eustache (where my mother went when she studied here several Les Halles ago) and then spent the afternoon with T, an American journalist friend of my uncle's. T spent part of his career focusing on religion news, so there was much to talk about. He also taught me a term and explained to me another I'd misunderstood completely.

The latter is le fait religieux, a phrase I'd seen in French materials from time to time. I was nonplussed by it, because I took it - erroneously, as it turns out - to be a faith claim. While I recall reading somewhere that it meant "phenomenon of religion," I was tripped up by fait, which I couldn't help seeing as some claim of fact: "the religious fact," "the fact of religion." I assumed it was a term used by people who were, if not believers themselves ("the truth of religion"), at least people who thought religion an element in the structure of consciousness.

Not so! T explained that it was a neologism introduced perhaps 15 years ago by a resolute secularist who was struck that religion-free public education had rendered French children unable to recognize most of what was going on in the art of the Louvre, etc. While religion - the term and the phenomenon - is anathema and has no place in the laïc French state, it might be a valuable part of citizenship and cultural literacy to know about things like this. It's like Richard Dawkins arguing (as he does) that while the Bible is a symptom of the toxic virus of religion, people should nevertheless learn about it for its influence on English poetry.

So fait religieux definitely doesn't mean what I thought it meant. It's closer, T said, to the extension of the English term "religion," which includes true and false, good and bad, near and far, individual and collective. I should have thought of fait accompli, or Bruno Latour's arguments about the social construction of knowledge based in dazzling word-play around the similar sounding faitiche-fétiche. Fait, after all, also means "made."

Incidentally, T found that when you seek out the English equivalent of the page Enseignement du fait religieux you get routed to Anthropology of religion! Which helps explain how my discipline, described awkwardly in the final program as "Professeur, Religious Studies," was in the surviving original language described as anthropologie religieuse. Does anthropologie here gesture toward what we would call the humanistic study of religion, I wonder? Everyone knows that English "secularism" and French laïcité are different; "séculaire" refers to completely different things than the English word... How naïve of me to think that religion could mean the same thing! Faux-amis strike again!

Oh, and the new term T taught me is laïcard, a term for what we might call a fundamentalist secularist, or perhaps a militant atheist? Of a sudden I'm not sure of anything anymore...

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Can you hear it? The approaching army of Spring?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


 Here we go again!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Across the pond

I'm back! My budget (if still not inexpensive) trip took me over JFK to CDG and back Orly to Newark, both in surprisingly small planes. The more interesting surprise was that we flew over the Channel Islands and then snowy Newfoundland and Nova Scotia on the way, before hitting weather. I'd forgotten that Europe is so, well - it's not close exactly, and it isn't cheap anymore, but it is convenient. Back when some combination of my parents, my sister and I lived there I was building carbon karma over the North Atlantic several times a year... The much larger Pacific (and the whole of it, not just the northern part) is our family pond now, and Asia claims me in ways Europe no longer does, personally or professionally. After a quite lovely week in France that seems more bittersweet than it has for a while. Je reviendrai un jour!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Impressions de Paris

you had to be there...

Saturday, March 12, 2016


The charmingly quixotic colloquium "Michel de Certeau: Le Voyage de l'Oeuvre" is over, thirty-five fifteen-minute talks in three languages, from all different disciplines and experiences. That de Certeau's thought was wide- and far-ranging was more than borne out by the variety!

I was part of the final panel, the non-indoeuropéen, but that wasn't the first oddity of naming. Nor was the fact that the second germanique panel yesterday consisted of a Dutch, a Danish and a Flemish presenter (the first speaker defused it by saying he'd be speaking in another "Germanic" language - English!). In a way the deeper weirdness was that the conference was arranged in this linguistic way at all (before our panel was one with the cumbersome name Domaine espagnol (Amérique latine surtout) et Portugais (Brésil seulement), but the purpose was to suggest influence and inspiration of de Certeau's work around the world. Our panel (which was originally named turc, chinois et japonais) included a Japanese scholar of French mysticism, a Chinese-born American professor of French, a Dutch Jesuit sinologist, a Turkish historian of science, a Japanese American anti-orientalist historian of Japan, and me. Our presider, a French Jesuit sinologist, suggested our title really referred obliquely to lands which had as yet been barely touched by Michel de Certeau's work, les sauvages!

I justified my presence by recounting how I'd met the organizer in China, where I'd spent a year testing my pieties. My talk was about the conversation which might happen (though it has not yet happened) between American "lived religion" and de Certeau, whose L'invention du quotidien (The practice of everyday life) seems an obvious source - especially when you take into account de Certeau's many writings about religion - with a "pivot to Asia" at the end. This was also a way to avoid concluding that Americans might not jibe with de Certeau because of limitations to his horizon: instead I mused about what Chinese religious phenomena the different things made illuminate, before suggesting that the experience of Christian churches in Asia might help us see beyond both the mindset of European Christendom and American views of "religion." Maybe you'll hear more about this... 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Sublime cityscape

Strolling through Paris is bringing back memories... It's not quite true that I was a sort of Parisian. I always felt I was on the outside looking in, something more painful than it is in New York because of the lively life of the narrow streets. (New York streets and sidewalks are broad enough that the public space of anonymous strangers holds its own against the inviting glow and gleam of the spaces of desire and conviviality, but here the joyous intimacy of others is less than an arm's length away.) Had I stayed, I might have gotten to know enough people that I'd be among the people squeezed into little cafés, bars, restaurants. Perhaps.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Europe 2016

It's been a long while since I spent quality time in Europe. (The stopover three years ago doesn't really count.) Long enough that I was surprised to see the Brandenburg Gate on two of the coins as I paid for my (expensive) espresso at a Montparnasse coffee shop. Not to mention that the a coffee shop was called Odessa...