Monday, July 31, 2017

Last trip of the summer completed, can Fall be that near?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

O Canada

Elora Gorge and poutine at a bistro in Elora itself, some of the highlights of a delightful visit with friends who've just moved to Guelph.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Lake Ontario

Friday, July 28, 2017

Yes, Niagara Falls.

Thursday, July 27, 2017


Greetings from Buffalo, on a little getaway which will include Canada.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Summer blooms

Japanese pagoda tree, snakeroot and coneflowers

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Family values

Traits common to all organisms include such non-depressing and religiously fertile capacities as end-directedness and identity maintenance; traits common to all animals include awareness and the capacity for pleasure and suffering; traits common to social beings include co-operation and meaning making; traits common to birds and mammals include bonding and nurturance; traits common to humans include language and its capacity to share subjective experience, and thus to know love.

Ursula Goodenough and Terrence W. Deacon , "The Sacred Emergence of Nature," in 
The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, ed. Philip Clayton (NY: OUP, 2008), 860;
qtd in Carol Wayne White, "Stubborn Materiality: African American Religious Naturalism
and Becoming Our Humanity," in Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialismsed. Catherine Keller and Mary-Jane Rubenstein (Fordham, 2017), 251-73, 265

Monday, July 24, 2017

The honor of thieves

I try not to bring politics into this blog, not because I don't spend inordinate amounts of time following the latest horrors, but because what the regime will not tolerate is independent thought, long-term thinking, subtlety, the quest for... ways of living in truth and justice with all beings?

But I have to say something about the appointment of the new White House communications director. just one thing. In a TV interview he promised to help aid and abet [the president's] agenda. But "aid and abet" is, to the best of my knowledge, a term from criminal law, denoting conspiracy in helping someone commit a crime.

This bothers me not because it's a misuse of language, but because it may be a very canny use of language. It's not just the kind of promise of personal loyalty the president demands (and what is loyalty if it's not standing with you when you're wrong?), it's the suggestion that what the nation needs is the honor of thieves.

In an article I read a few weeks ago, someone said that to understand the president one needed to understand the New York real estate milieu he came from, one in which if you avoided the appearance of impropriety, you weren't trying hard enough. The Republican leadership in Congress has been learning to play that game, too.

It's not just that politics has always been sleazy, or that some people may think the stakes so high that scruples must be put aside under some circumstances. Brazenly flirting with impropriety is the style of the capitalist deal-maker, for whom everything is up for grabs (there is no such thing as a fair price, my sister learned the first day in her course on business ethics years ago) except that some people win - usually the strong and canny - and others lose. That was the worldview of America First as described by Mattis and Cohn: the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.

Why would people accept such a vile view? Perhaps because some have always lived by this law, and some of those have spent recent years fearing payback. But more, I think, because the world many have to make a life in is one where values don't matter, just "win." The White House Counselor famous for the coinage alternative facts says that everyone knows the President doesn't think he's lying. She wasn't calling him delusional or unmoored from reality. She thinks all sane people accept that it's not a question he has time for - and his career has rewarded him richly for this agility. How quaint of some of the rest of us to think he should waste time on it - cravenly and culpably quaint when those who claim to be truth-tellers are all liars too. (Read all about that in the alt-press!) There's an honesty in the man's refusal to pretend people can be good, superior to the hypocrisy of those who piously claim otherwise. (Masha Gessen has warned us about the toxic infectious cynicism of authoritarians.)

This isn't to downplay the particular amorality and cynicism of these particular profiteers, nor is it to deny that the "fake news" playbook was written, and known to be written, in Russia. It's an attempt to make sense of good people's - I persist in believing most people are good, if not the same number as think they are - support of the man. They're not fools. They see what we see (if not always presented in nested Russian dolls) and think they can live with it, or have to.

How, in a time when people think they can't afford to expect propriety, can one rebuild a national conversation? Not to say "I know better." Perhaps: "I want to understand."

Sunday, July 23, 2017

World mountain

I've come across a fascinating argument (not yet published so I can't give a reference) that "Kailash" for at least some people sometimes meant the entire rise of what we now know to be the Tibetan plateau, a protuberance on the earth's surface so great as to make it pear-shaped. The source of all rivers (check), so big a mountain that you can't see it (the astonishment of travelers north across the Himalaya arriving not at a peak but a vast plain, a sea floor...) Among his illustrations is the one from which I've clipped the above, an 1866 cross section of Asia.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Say cheese

Peek-a-boo through some Swiss cheese... Georgia O'Keeffe having fun with photographer Tony Vaccaro in 1960, on view (for one more day) in the summer's blockbuster at the Brooklyn Museum. I wasn't sure what to expect from a show celebrated and derided for not putting her art at its center, but rather her style, her image, what our contemporaries would call her brand, but I found it quite enjoyable. I feel she would have found it entertaining, too, the intense look of the great artist - with a wink. She knows we're watching; we're meant to.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Pea and not-pea

This charming Klee-like drawing is the dance of the "upper internodes of the common pea" over the course of 12 hours "traced on a hemispherical glass and transferred to paper" by Charles Darwin's son George and reproduced in "On the movements and habits of climbing plants" (1865). Actually, it's even more charming than that: it seems to be political theorist Jane Bennett's hand-drawn copy of the dance of the pea (the original is Fig. 6 here, and you can find many more of its ilk here), and appears in the second of my vacation booksEntangled Worlds, p 101!

Bennett is exploring the "onto-sympathy" which seems to happen between human beings and plants, inspired by Henry David Thoreau's mystical encounters with leaves and pine needles around Walden Pond, as well as by Henri Bergson's idea of "élan vital." Onto-sympathy is her coinage for what draws out the subjective sentiment of kinship and the literary technique of simile in Thoreau: a larger (I would say "impersonal") cosmic tendency for bodies to follow attractions, to (mis)recognize, and to form affiliates (94).

I'm not sure I entirely buy it, though I appreciate the effort to acknowledge some kind of something between us and plants. It's not just, though she mentions it also, consuming plants, which involves their becoming us and us becoming them, but an effort to articulate what we share with plants on their terms rather than ours: gravitation, corporation, annunciation (92). (But she's on another planet than the shared flourishing of plant and human people of Robin Wall Kimmerer.) And I got lost in her musing that some sort of "rhythm" of "shapes" is revealed in Thoreau's "psychedelic" thinking that the body is just as much a product of "drops" as a snow-melting railroad embankment. But the familiar passage in Thoreau she cites moves me deeply, though into the inanimate, the mineral, not the vegetal, which seems to me to strive against the gravitational, upward rather than down... Thoreau's sand drops:

flow down the slopes like lava.... Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace.... exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. ... What is man but a mass of thawing clay? The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed. The fingers and toes flow to their extent from the thawing mass of the body.... The nose is a manifest congealed drop of stalactite. The chin is a still larger drop, the confluent dripping of the face. The cheeks are a slide from the brows into the valley of the face.... Each rounded lobe of the vegetal leaf, too, is a thick and now loitering drop .... the lobes are the fingers of the leaf. (97-98)

Bennett might point to the half way of the laws of currents and of vegetation, and be right. There's something marvelous in the way eroding sand finds the same shapes, often on vast scales, of growing plants. (The reason, of course, is in physics though, isn't it?) Maybe there's something in the cyclical life of at least those plants that put forth leaves and lose them again each year that is half way between the uninterrupted cycle of the current and our own single pass through existence as animals...

This picture from an airplane window is a decade old; I'm glad to have a chance to reconnect to it, and its onto-sympathetic inspiration.

Jane Bennett, "Vegetal Life and Onto-Sympathy,"
in Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms,
ed. Catherine Keller and Mary-Jane Rubenstein (Fordham, 2017), 89-110

Thursday, July 20, 2017


I've never been to the Jewish Museum, and will have to return for the standing collection, currently closed. But we had fun with Charlemagne Palestine's overbearing "Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland"; the purposely jarring "The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin," each of its themes worked into a composition of found text by Kenneth Goldsmith; and the fancies of Florine Stettheimer.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


It's that time of the summer where I start to think that my staple course "Theorizing Religion" might need a major overhaul. I do more than tweak it each year, in line with what seem to me important trends in Religious Studies and my sense of the particular needs of our students; I've also scaled back the required books, mainly for financial reasons.

Still, this will be an important year for Religious Studies, as one of our mainstay instructors - who taught mainly in medieval and Literary Studies - has left the university (boohoo), and we're pursuing a relationship with the burgeoning present-focused Journalism + Design program. I long ago abandoned the fantasy that most of the student in the class would be on their way to the Minor or even the Major (though it's required for them), and I'm thinking it's time I abandoned the fantasy that students come in with meaningful experience in religious studies... As I tell all instructors in the program, it's best to assume that for many students in the class it will be their first exposure to religious studies - and also, quite possibly, their last. Without students bringing in knowledge of actual religion (ostensibly a prerequisite, but Lang is loose with prereqs) discussion can tilt toward all-theory-no-religion, unprofitable tttttttt instead of trtrtrtrtr! This will also be year 3 of my experiment - I guess it's more than that by now! - with the category of "religion making" as a way of relating academic religious studies to other engagements, specifically with the aim of tapping students' prior non-academic knowledge of religion. And then there's the Evangelical support for Donald Trump...

The problem, of course, is that there are only so many class sessions, so much time you can expect students to spend. Every addition has to be accommodated be a subtraction. (I won't budge on my policy of usually assigning just one reading per class, though it might be several chapters from the same book.) So here's what I'm toying with: using a MOOC.

Yes, you heard me right, a MOOC, that pox on all university instruction! In my defense, I wouldn't be replacing an actual course with a MOOC; instead, I'd use the MOOCs as what it seems to me they are: multimedia BOOKS. Which MOOCs, though, and why? I'm thinking of the units on "World Religions Through Their Scriptures" of Harvard Divinity School's "Religious Literacy" project I sampled last year. I tried out the methodological unit, finding it more than acceptable, but my thought is to have students each choose one of the units devoted to a specific world religion: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism. Students would actually get an education in a particular tradition (what most of them lack), and one might find ways of having them share what they're learning with students studying other world religions. (We'd talk about the problems of "world religions" and "scriptures," too, of course, and in any case the series seems to be smart and sophisticated about both.) The whole thing could also be related to "religion making" and the religious studies/journalism frontier, since the Religious Literacy project is in part designed to address "religious illiteracy."

So what's not to like? The problems, at this stage of toying with the idea, are several.
(1) Harvard will strike some of the student as "the Man," even if it's HDS: isn't The New School supposed to reject all such venerable institutions and their stodgy approaches? And a MOOC in a seminar class? We can engage these incongruities fearlessly! (And by the way, a goodly number of our students and adjunct instuctors have gone on HDS, no stodge.)
(2) More seriously, each of the courses requires 24-40 hours of work - though it could and would be skimmed, I wouldn't want to endorse that. Accommodating a unit would take up the prep time for six class sessions in my class, a steep cost, whatever we get out of "becoming mini-experts" and sharing and synthesizing what we've learned. (I suppose that doesn't mean giving up six class sessions; some could be given to sharing MOOC learning, but others could offer self-contained learning experiences, perhaps around a film or a visitor or even a lecture.)
(3) Finally, to be responsible about it, I'd have to make my way through all five units. Goodbye summer! (But also, hullo standard world religions training, which I never got.)

I don't have to decide for another month. Perhaps I'll wind up imagining major revisions, then scaling them back, as in years past. I don't think the skeleton of the course, or its ethos, will change. I'll keep you posted...
PS This post's title means to be

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Deastined for an eggplant - pardon me, aubergine - kuku.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Whiteness and the philosophy of the history of philosophy

It's taken me much longer than it should have, but I sent off today (the deadline) a response to a discussion of an important recent book which demonstrates that it was only about 200 years ago that western philosophers started thinking of philosophy as a western thing, as having been "born" in Greece rather than in Egypt or "the East."

The book was published in 2013, and an author-meets-critics session was dedicated to it at an American Philosophical Association meeting last year. Texts from that session, including a response from the author, are being published by the Journal of World Philosophies, and I've been asked to write a reflection on their conversation. (Other may have been asked to, too.) For me it was a chance to get to know the interesting work of three scholars I didn't know, and to weigh in on some of the issues they discussed when they came together.

I was asked, I think, because the book refers a few times to my work on Kant's contributions to the modern idea of race, so, as an erstwhile expert on the subject, I pontificated on it for two paragraphs; here are their rather incendiary final sentences;

The Popularphilosophie of Christoph Meiners, the main rival to Kant’s anthropological project, was anathema because it didn’t realize the possibility, and the moral necessity, of being truly philosophical in the practice of one’s prejudices. ... 
Kant’s philosophical accounts of “race” were an invitation to history, a call to his “white” readers and students to take up their indispensable place in what one enthusiastic follower would call the “free middle” of otherwise determined human history.

Most of my reflections were more measured, making suggestions for how one might use the historicity of the Greeks-created-philosophy story to "decolonize" philosophy (the term one of the respondents used). The two respondents, both comparative philosophers, pointed towards expanding the canon beyond western philosophers, even as they lamented how rare it is to find courses offered in non-western philosophy, and rarer still for non-western philosophy to be presented as more than an optional add-on to a degree.

Reconnected with my past work in the history of philosophy, I wound up arguing for that also marginal field. The book in question includes fascinating accounts of the often strange histories written for philosophy before the Greek story took over, as well as of debates about whether a history of philosophy was even possible. These meta-questions about the history of philosophy are not only exciting but can connect with the often existential questions that bring students to philosophy classes.

The history of the history of philosophy in fact brings us face to face with the philosophy of history. ...Why should not a history of philosophy class also be, or at least spend some time with, philosophy of history? And why should not an education in philosophy involve reflection on what it means that philosophizing happens in time, across cultures, in languages, and in concert and tension with other forms of human endeavor, enquiry and theory? This would be the most natural point at which to integrate “comparative philosophy” into our curricula. Imagine if our introduction to philosophizing included accounts of the life and times of thinking framed by Nahuatl philosophy, Zhuangzian irony or David Loy’s “studies in lack”!...

As the histories he unpacks for us show, the question of the history of philosophy is not just academic but existential. [These] late eighteenth and early nineteenth century historians of philosophy give voice to an experience of feeling the pulse of history in their own thinking – and, for some but not all, that of other people who think they are white. Our students, too, seek that pulse, especially in our time, when the past no longer seems as securely past and the future seems to have come unmoored. They seek to understand the possibility of freedom, including freedom from prejudice... 

In a way I wasn't doing much more than proposing for the history of philosophy what folks in the field of the history of the academic study of religion do, but I quite like the way it came out sounding. Perhaps, in this discussion, the ideas will be found new and helpful.