Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The writing on the walls

The lecture course on New School history I teach with my friend J (called Who New?) started today! We're meeting in the same lecture hall where I taught the course on Job and the arts last semester, so it felt doubly familiar. We introduced the course, some of its issues - then sent the class on an assignment. Not all took it as seriously as some did, but the ensuing discussion confirmed the value of the participation of those who did, and our sincerity in soliciting it. Their insights matter!

The assignment was to "pair up in threes" and spend twenty minutes articulating a response to the site-specific commission "Comrades and Lovers" by Glenn Ligon (which happens to be next door to our lecture hall), and then walk up to the 5th floor to the Fifth AVenue-side staircase with its cascade of courses and find some class titles which resonated with the issues Ligon had suggested. Neither of these works gets much attention (in part a consequence of their placement), but each in its way relates to what we're up to in the class. What do you do with the somewhat disjointed history of The New School?

Inspired by my experience with the amazing final assignments for the Job and the Arts class, we're asking students to do a final project engaging New School's past, present and future - in the medium which means most to them, whether creative or academic. Perhaps we'll revisit today's sites for inspiration, or warning. Are words effective ways to convey the energy of this place? Colors? Spaces? Is any work engaging the past doomed to be overlooked by people focused on today's problems and tomorrow's possibilities?

(The above pictures are ones I took during the exercise then projected as the students returned to the classroom for discussion. Tech savvy!)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Sikh or be found

Theorizing Religion '16 began today - a nice group, good discussion. But preparing for it this morning I encountered what looked to be a big problem: the Belief-O-Matic online religion quiz I've used the last few years to break the ice wasn't working! But sometimes when God closes a door he opens a window. I found someone had copied the whole thing into a website of their own! So the twenty questions, with their rangy answers and the bar for indicating how important a given issue was to you, were all there - and the algorithm, too, which offered a breakdown of religious affinities supposedly disclosed (sample at right, from a student who'd never heard of Sikhism). So we were able to have the playful discussion I wanted after all. But the website doesn't just reproduce the (un-named) Belief-O-Matic. It bundles it with two other quizzes, to which you are directed, as appropriate, by your answer to a very loaded question posed before you even get to
Belief-O-Matic's: Are you already certain that you don't believe in a god or gods? If you answer Yes, you're directed to the Godless-O-Meter. 22 questions tell you your affinities with a passel of pantheists, atheists, agnostics, iconoclasts, deists, ignostics (?) but also Theravada Buddhists, Taoists, UU (shared with the Belief-O-Matic), and even Confucians. Another link takes you to an Ethical Philosophy Selector.

Now I don't actually know which of these quizzes came first. At least when I first discovered it, Belief-O-Matic was clearly described as "Powered by SelectSmart," the website where the Spiritual Belief System Selector and its buddies now reside. Does it matter?

Are you already certain that you don't believe in a religion or religions?

In the house

After a hiatus of seven years, I'm back on the Faculty Senate, a chance to get a broader view of the life of the university as a whole. My earlier stint was during the heady years of the Kerrey Administration. It'll be interesting to see how things have changed with new administration, stronger provost's office, divisional restructuring, university-wide strategic plan, new branding, mission and vision statement, etc.!

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Other Kailash yatris have been sharing their pictures. Here's one of me, with two Nepalis, walking on water at Lake Manasarovar.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Friday, August 26, 2016

Cold war cartography

One of these is, perhaps, Mount Kailash! They are part of the Unisphere, the lasting monument of the 1964 New York World's Fair held in Corona Park, Queens - a place I confess it's taken me this long to finally go see.
But speaking of seeing, you know what you can't see? China. In fact the globe seems so positioned than the then communist world all but disappears - except as a blotchy negative across the open Pacific...

Historical panorama

The real objective of the Corona Park visit was the Panorama of the City of New York, now in the Queens Museum. I've wanted to see the world's fair panorama since reading a romantic scene which took place here in Michael Chabon's 2001 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.It didn't occur to me that the Panorama wouldn't have changed much since that book was written - 6000 of its 900,000 structures were updated in 1992-94, but further updates have been ad hoc and few. The areas where I spend most of my time haven't changed too much, though.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

New blurb for theorizing

I've carried a course introducing the discipline of religious studies with me since I first started professoring. Once called "Approaches to the Study of Religion" and a lecture, it became a seminar and was renamed "Theorizing Religion" by a short-lived colleague here, and that name has stuck. The upcoming academic year will mark my tenth time teaching it at Lang. Perhaps by next year it will get a new name, "Religion Making."

Revisiting the syllabus each year has become a ritual, a chance to take stock of my changing understanding of my discipline, as well as of the context in which I'm teaching it. Assignments have changed as well as readings, which encircle a relatively stable core of "classic texts" in newer debates and perspectives. (I agonize about the core each time. Canons exist only because professors say so. Is it really appropriate to subject students to the old roster of dead white men? And yet, after two decades in the field, I have - not without chagrin - to acknowledge that few of the more contemporary readings I've assigned over the years are still being used. This isn't because they're out of date, but because they are part of growing and changing discussions... Still, in these growing changing discussions, those old classics - which are out of date! - keep coming up! We're constituted as a field - and able, to the extent that we are, to talk across generations - through our formative engagements with these classics. I can't do the counter-canon thing. I teach critical awareness and creative engagement through wrestling with compromised legacies.

And yet I've been moving toward what I'm now calling "religion making" as a focus for some time. The foundation, I suppose, lies in the seminar itself - an educational set-up where knowledge is put together by the a particular group of people in discussion, rather than handed down by a lecturer (or texts) representing a field, a discipline. The particularity of the particular group matters, too. When I first arrived, Lang had no majors, and religious studies still isn't a major. I'm still grateful for the students who concentrated in religious studies, but most students, even in this class, aren't. The course has to be useful for psychologists and historians and students in culture and media, too. And writers and artists - for Lang has many students hoping to establish themselves as artists. How can I be of service to them - and they to the class? Seminars work because the participants are not just empty vessels, waiting to be filled by professorial instruction, but come with perspectives, questions, insights, identities of their own - what I've in the last year learned to call "prior knowledge."

And of course many of the students, whether they're taking few or many courses in religious studies, aren't taking it to learn about religious studies. They're curious about religion - something carefully or carelessly omitted from their previous education. Religion has become one of the things Americans encounter in college. Some come because they are fascinated or disturbed by religious fanatics, others are on a spiritual quest of their own. None are, let's face it, interested in the discipline of religious studies (let alone its endless self-critique). But perhaps I can show them how to be - and why to be interested, even if academia isn't their thing.

So here's where I've ended up in the Fall 2016 edition. (I'm happy to show you the readings and assignments, too.) Religious studies shares the stage with "religion-making," a broader category which includes religion as presented by media and framed by law, engaged by politics and sublimed by art - and which welcomes students' prior knowledge. Each is offered as necessary but not sufficient. The academic approach may be new to them, and I hope to demonstrate its value to them, but they are already working with categories and practices of "religion" as they walk in the door. Learning to theorize together in a seminar setting should make them more reflective, responsible "religion makers," both in school and out. (I don't print out the syllabi until Monday, so if you notice typos etc, let me know!)

Recent calls for better policing of the borders of the field ring hollow 
to my mind. What is fascinating about religion are the borderlands. 
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, “Teaching Religion” 

The category of religion has been described as "the most ideological of Western creations." (Dubuisson 2003: 147) It is a modern western concept, born perhaps in 1799, yet most of what it is thought to refer to is non-modern or non-western. At the same time, it seems an inescapable part of articulating what it means to be human here and now. What does it reveal and obscure? Can it be thought about in non-mystifying ways? 

This course weaves together a critical history of the academic discipline of religious studies with explorations of everyday “religion-making” in the media and our own lives. We read classic and contemporary theories of the nature, history and value of religion to develop a reflective understanding of the concept as well as of the phenomena which are made to bear its name. Unexamined views of what religion is (and isn’t) blind us to the true challenges of those practices, beliefs and traditions regarded as religious – as well as those not so regarded. 
Many other categories constitutive of western modernity interlock with the concept of religion. Understanding the travails of religious studies also offers insight into other, similarly fraught disciplines, as indeed into the nature of disciplinary projects as a whole. A critical awareness of the concept of religion and its study offers incisive perspectives on politics, gender, ethics and identity. 

But what has recently been called “religion-making” isn’t just something scholars do. We experience religion as a natural kind because it is woven into our individual, social and even political experience. Religions are made and unmade by participants as well as by critics, by high and pop culture, by individuals and communities negotiating complicated identities, by those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” - and by the law. 

The academic study of religion is not an escape from these wider practices of making and unmaking “religion” and “religions” but a privileged place for reflection, critique, intervention and dialogue in the broader theoretical and practical challenges of our time.

PS I've found a second epigraph:

To use category names should be a commitment to tracing
the assemblages in which these categories gain a momentary hold.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 29

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Back to work!

Instant expertise

The reality of the imminent start of the academic year made itself felt today. Not one, not two, not three but four presentations/ meetings! Amusingly, all had to do with New School history!

This isn't quite as strange as it might seem. This is Orientation week for all sorts of people, so it made sense that I was invited to meet the Lang First Year Fellows, and that my New School history chum J and I were invited to reprise our Faculty Development Day talk for new staff. And since the new semester includes a return to J's and my course on New School history, it's unsurprising we'd have had a get-together to finalize our syllabus and discuss it with the two brilliant graduate students who will be leading the course discussion sections.

Still, this was zero to sixty in just seconds. New School history has not been something I've been thinking about this summer. Indeed, I wasn't even really thinking about it yesterday. Would I have enough at my fingertips? Oh, yes. Assembling it into a coherent story was harder... but then the point was always that assembling too coherent a story traduces a history which is, in fact, more empowering when recognized as scrappy. J and I finished our reprise with the importance of being attentive to the particular demands of the messy moment - a commitment of our long-ago founders as well as our efforts to be true to our own time. It worked well enough.

And I'm excited about going back to school - this school - too!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Some more Kailashes (both uncredited, from here and here).

Monday, August 22, 2016

Western barbarians

The Silk Roads is slowing down in its second half, like a high-speed train approaching its destination. Chapter 16 has brought us to the First World War (the result, Frankopan suggests, of Britain's anxiety over a rising Russia's threats to India), but there are another 8 chapter to go! I'm not sure I'll make it to the end...

Not that the book isn't still full of unknown vistas, brilliant aperçus and delectable foreground-background inversions. But I'm starting to weary a little of the foregrounding of trade, especially in luxury goods from silk to spices to horses. Doubtless very important, and a useful corrective to stories based on ideas, or on shifty concepts like national character, cultural identity, "great men" or power. But do luxury goods, their consumers and their purveyors, matter so very much more than ordinary consumers of necessities - or, for that matter, the faceless masses who spin the silk, harvest the spices, raise the horses, who are mentioned in The Silk Roads only when they die in a plague or a massacre? And are ideas so very secondary? David Frankopan seems to delight in mentioning things intellectual, cultural or religious only in passing, mystifying superstructure at best!

I suspect one of Frankopan's motives here is his larger project of contesting Eurocentric histories. Not only is the Greece to Rome to Renaissance to modern empires and democracy story bunkum, but recent experience of western ascendancy leads us, smugly and mistakenly, to think ourselves the rightful darlings of history and heirs of the human future. In fact Europe was of little to no significance for much of history, and became important only because of its unusual penchant for violence (entering the trade story through human trafficking). Europe is more aggressive, more unstable and less peace-minded than other parts of the world, Frankopan argues, and became important in recent centuries because its entrenched relationship with violence and militarism ... allowed it to place itself at the centre of the world after the great expeditions of the 1490s. (A characteristic aside, in the same discussion: Fighting, violence and bloodshed were glorified, as long as they could be considered just. That was one reason, perhaps, why religion became so important...) (250-51) We think ourselves uniquely civilized but it really just boils down to the fact that Europeans were world leaders in building fortresses and in storming them. (252)

Am I objecting to this because it's wrong, or because it's right? I told my Chinese friend about it and he looked at me like I'd just worked out that twice two makes four!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rounding up

My return to Kailash is over and done with, but my research project around it is only getting started! I'd initially thought to try to find out how encounters with pilgrims/travelers from different traditions shaped people's views of the sacredness of the mountain, but I have no language in common with most of these travelers, and am too shy to chat people up anyway. Instead, I undertook to study some of the videos travelers make of their trip, at least some of which are in languages I know. I started today with some videos which turned out to have been edited by touring companies for specific groups - all aimed at Hindu pilgrims (the vast majority of non-Tibetans). It was fun to revisit the route we traversed three years ago, and to see places now familiar in different
seasons. I also saw things I didn't get to see, since they're part of what's called the "inner kora," closed to anyone who hasn't done the "outer" circumambulation thirteen times. But that's for ordinary Buddhists and Hindus! A turbo-charged Hindu group in 2012 (most from California) did the inner kora before even embarking on the outer. Indeed, the narration explained in a clever inversion, one turn around Nandi (part of the "inner kora") counts as thirteen of the outer! These lucky yatris also got to visit the cave in Kailash's south face where, Nepali astrologers (sic!) say, seven Vedic rishis meditated: below you see all of them, happily subordinate to Lord Shiva, master of the mount. Inner and outer, multiplicity and supremacy, and stories galore: much to explore!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Friday, August 19, 2016

Brooklyn delights

New York has its pleasures too - what a nice thing when friends from out of town show them to you! Some Japanese friends were here for the past few days, and on their Brooklyn day we took in not just the Captain America statue by the Prospect Park Carousel but Brooklyn Bridge Park. They'd bought tickets for BargeMusic, something I've heard of but never attended: enchanting as the St. Petersburg Piano Quartet played Vivaldi and Brahms in a resonant converted coffee barge, bobbing as boats passed on the East River...

Thursday, August 18, 2016


It's been exactly a month since I last shaved. I thought of this as part of being a yatri - a discipline as well as a marker of time. (I did the same last time, too.)

On returning to steamy summer Prospect Heights, however, overflowing with nerdy guys parading their nineteenth century beards in pastel shorts, I realized it reads completely differently here. It's off!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Bolts from the blue

In not very many days I'll be up to my neck in religious studies and other class-related research. To take advantage of the calm before this storm, I'm reading a "new history of the world," Byzantinist Peter Frankopan's thrilling The Silk Roads. It was on my office desk waiting for me - I'd bought a copy for my father for his birthday and one for me - but the Nepal-Tibet trip provided an additional incentive. The last night, at the Summit Hotel above Patan, the group members still in town gathered
for dinner and showed off what we'd purchased - mostly at Vajra Books in Thamel. I'd found a reprint of Swami Pranavananda's 1949 book about Kailash and Manasarovar, complete with cool map inserts of different sizes (don't ask me if I ever read it!). But S, the historian in our group, a venerable polymath from the Indian Himalaya, had something more interesting still - Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads in its Indian binding. He'd been looking forward to reading it since he heard about it, he said! 170 pages in, I've got as far as the Mongols, who have laid waste to countless cities of trade and culture which I'd only ever learned about from this book. Nice to have known you Merv, Nīshāpūr...

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Three stones came home with me. The largest is from Kailash - perhaps the same kind of stone, though I picked it up on the final day of the k, when you no longer see the mount. The others picked me up. The smooth round stone comes from the shore of Manasarovar, not right by the water. Others in our group were bathing in the lake so sacred to Hindus, reaching down to pick up a stone as they did so, like believers. 
I thought it would be frivolous for me to take part, so I sat at some remove from the shore (and from the others). There this little rock found its way into my hand. And the jagged brown one smiled up at me as I was waiting, not without trepidation, for the helicopter at Hilsa, the barren border town where the rolling horizontality of the Tibetan Plateau meets the sublime but forbidding verticality of the Himalaya.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Ready, set

Back to Lang, after what feels like a lot more than four weeks. Everything's set for the new academic year, which starts in a fortnight. I'll be ready soon, too. Somehow!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Why Kailas?

Perhaps a little narrative would be in order too, to explain what I was doing in those far-flung places! New School's India China Institute Sacred Himalaya Initiative has been sending parties of scholars, artists and policy-makers to various parts of ICIMOD's Kailash Sacred Landscape,
which stretches across parts of India, Nepal and China (Tibet). I was part of an exploratory party which circumambulated Mount Kailash three years ago, but we drove along the new Chinese-built road from Lhasa (joining it from eastern Nepal). Since then folks have been spending time in the areas where pilgrims (almost all Saivites from India) historically passed through on their way to the Abode of Shiva. Last Fall a postdoc accompanied an Indian government-sponsored pilgrim group starting in Delhi. In January a party walked part of the way pilgrims walk from India up to the border of Tibet, and in the Spring teams of local scholars explored some parts of Southwestern Nepal, where alternate and substitute Kailashes abound.

This time, it was back to Kailas itself by way of Humla, a remote area of northwest Nepal, where pilgrims once followed the Humla-Karnali (a Ganges tributary) to its source just south of Kailas and its lakes. This part of Nepal is so rugged that there are only two ways to cover the 65 kilometers from Simikot (which has an airport) to the border town of Humla - by foot or by helicopter. I did both - the first on the way up (July 22-25), the second on the way back (Aug 4). (Most of our group, many of whom had walked up from Simikot by a different route, walked back along the Karnali.) In between, a group of about twenty Nepalis, Indians, Americans and Tibetans spent a little time in the trading center of Taklakot, capital of the Tibetan prefecture where Kailas is, drove around Lake Manasarovar (more sacred to many pilgrims than the mountain), took a turn around the sacred mount itself (July 29-Aug 1), spent a little time at other pilgrimage sites a little to the west (Tirthapuri and Gurugyam). We'd planned also to visit the ancient capital of the Guge Kingdom at Tsaparang but permission was withdrawn, perhaps because it's too close to the Indian border, so we had a little more time in Katmandu at the end to collect our thoughts.

Reflections are still trickling in, but our very interdisciplinary group seems to have gleaned a wide range of things from the adventure. Religion wasn't high on most participants' lists, though a few had a "spiritual" interest in Kailas, and a few others became obsessed with the fact that the shamans of Humla, known as dhamis, are denied permission by the Chinese authorities to bathe in Lake Manasarovar, from which they claim to get their clairvoyant powers. (One of our Indian fellows drily observed that there haven't been dhamis on the Indian side since the arrival of science and good governance.) Everyone's moved by the Tibetan circumambulators (most from the neighboring region), whether the more prominent Buddhists, who walk with Hindus clockwise, or the counterclockwise-processing Bönpos. Nobody's much impressed by the Hindus who are carried most of the kora by horseback, by the rather gaudy new monastery someone has decided to build at Dirapuk, or by the adventure-tourists who combine Kailas with visits to Everest or cycling across Tibet.

I was probably the only one intrigued by the way in which Kailas - hardly the world religious center its promoters claim but still, for several centuries now an object of devotion for two kinds of Tibetans and one kind of Hindu - is understood to be home not just of a single power but of a paired power (Demchhog/Tara, Shiva/Parvati), with a considerable retinue, all in turn symbolized by nearby lakes and other mountains, and object not just of lay circumambulation but of elaborate Tantric rituals. I'm not sure what I think about all this, but I'm feeling my way to an account of a local pluralism quite different from that presupposed (and celebrated) by the pablum about a "mountain sacred to four religions." 

More Kailas pics

I can't be bothered to dejumble my memories, choose "representative" scenes, etc., but these photos are at least in chronological order.
The planes flying tom Nepalganj to Simikot, and what the flight attendant hands out at the start of each flight; first rock pile on our walk from Simikot to Hilsa; kids on a roof in the Karnali valley; mystic mountains; view over Nama-la Pass; struggling trees along a Chinese road; Nepali-Indian mart in Taklakot; Rakshas-tal, the demon lake, and detritus of past pilgrims; newly carved mane stones from the Horse Year, along blessed lake Manosarovar; me at the Darchen visitors center; Nepali pal Nabraj tying one of many lines of prayer flags friends had given him to take to Kailash; materials for the expanded Kagyu monastery being built at Dirapuk, looking at Kailash' north face; neuron-like prayer flags at Dolma-la pass; a view back from the final day of the kora with Tibet's amazing blue sky; multi-color Tirthapuri; a team of painters working on murals at Gurugyam Bön temple; a view of the Simikot to Hilsa trail, taken from a helicopter (yes, I choppered back!); and, back in the Kathmandu Valley, interreligious harmony on a taxi dashboard, and Bhaktapur Durbar Square a year after the earthquake.


Oops, somehow I forgot to include the coolest thing! We shared the Simikot to Hilsa trail with everyone and everything else moving across the landscape, including caravans of sheep and goats, the remains of a nearly obsolete trade of Himalayan salt for Nepali grains. Above is one of three caravans which we encountered our second day out of Simikot; below are sheep coming up the far side of Nama-la above Hilsa.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Yatri returns

First, nearly random, selection of my 1800 pics from Humla-Kailash!

Slightly out of sequence... the path along the Karnali River, a dhami (shaman) who traveled with us for a time, panorama halfway to Tibet, the border at Hilsa, birds of Lake Manasarovar, base of a chorten and Kailash view near Dirapuk, panorama of Gurugyam Bön monastery, terra cotta devotional at Tirthapuri, view over Simikot.