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 (and not just, though also, in consuming them, which involves their becoming us and us becoming them), an effort to articulate what we share with plants on their terms rather than ours. And her musing that Thoreau's "psychedelic" thinking that the body is just as much a product of "drops" as a melting railroad embankment discloses some sort of rhythm of shape eludes me. But the Thoreau moves me deeply, though into the inanimate, the mineral, nor the vegetal, which seems to me to strive against it, upward rather than downward... 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 is from almost a decade ago; 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.