Saturday, August 30, 2008

Full up

My schedule for the coming semester - doesn't looks so bad, huh. Except for all that happens outside the boxes in one-on-one meetings with current first year and religious studies faculty and peer advisers, not to mention faculty I'm recruiting for next year, and various events for First Year and Religious Studies: don't imagine Fridays remain free. And class prep. (No, I'm not teaching Chemistry of Life: for the first time in my life I'm taking a chemistry class!) And reading daily reading responses (there are 35 students signed up for Theorizing Religion). If you've ever wondered why faculty at colleges look harried even though they "only teach a few hours a week," here's why.

Good thing I got myself a subscription to BAM's Next Wave Festival for eight Thursdays in the next few months: I'll be good and ready for diversion by Thursday night each week!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Worth waiting for

Meet Bohumil Hrabal, a famous Czech satirical writer (1914-1997). I know of him because, when I visited Prague in 2002 (for a pay-as- you-go conference on Evil and Wickedness!), my hostess recommended Hrabal's I served the King of England as the one Czech novel I should make sure to read. Read it I did, and love it, too. It tells the picaresque story of a tiny waiter who wants nothing more than to be rich - though he enjoys the company of ladies, too. He pursues his dream, oblivious to political changes around him from the 1920s to 1948, and nearly achieves it. But the joy of the novel is the absurd and tragic world around him, and the suggestion that Dite's experience and temperament are like that of the Czechs as a people, assistant waiters to the predatory fat cats among European nations. Somehow lovable without being admirable, amoral Dite is an antihero but an innocuous one; the world he manages to ignore isn't one you'd want anyone to be aware of.

Well, I Served the King of England has been made into a wonderful film, directed by Jirí Menzel. It opened today in New York. The twinky Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev is terrific as the protagonist, and Julia Jentsch (the Sophie Scholl of "Sophie Scholl") is hilarious in a terrifying sort of way as the true believing Nazi Sudeten-German girl he falls in love with. Martin Huba plays the omniscient maître d' at the Hotel Paris, the only really admirable character, the noble version of Czech identity - but still a waiter at a restaurant whose rich clients are from other countries.

The film is full of delights, though I'm not sure whether the particular absurdist cynicism of the larger story works over here - the audience at the Quad seemed flummoxed by it. Give it a try, though.

(Oh, and lest you think me an oblivious Dite, concerned only with what to serve up to my students: I thought the perfidious Clintons gave better speeches than true-hearted Obama in Denver, though his was strong enough. I share Vladimir Putin's suspicion that the Georgian-South Ossetian conflagration was encouraged by the White House with an eye to the upcoming presidential election. These guys are unscrupulous, and very good - look at the way they stole the thunder of the DNC by announcing McCain's Cylon running mate the very next day.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Eloquent walls

Went on a tour this afternoon of mural sponsored by an organization called Groundswell in Brooklyn. Groundswell's artists team up with groups of teenagers (mostly) who learn about mural painting, and develop a mural on some issue which concerns them. It's remarkable to see the murals and how they change the urban landscape. The one above shows children who've been killed by speeding cars as they crossed the road. The one below will be dedicated next Saturday but has already become a hub of controversy. It was designed by young women unhappy about military recruitment in their high school. Click it to see what the parachutes say. The black triangle is the BQE, from which the top half of the mural is visible.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Shell game

When I asked my students yesterday to introduce themselves with something about them that the other students did not already know, the first few reported on their dietary lives - "I'm a vegetarian," "I like grilled cheese sandwiches" - but then we got derailed by pets. In fact it was the grilled cheese lover, for she told us "I like grilled cheese sandwiches, and turtles." "Not together," I asked? "No," she smiled, unsure of what I was implying. But the turtles won out after all, for no fewer than three more students (out of twelve!) proved to have turtles in their lives.

What to make of it? I suppose I've myself to blame - of course they weren't going to risk anything less than unthreatening about themselves, so we ended up with kittens, turtles and tofu. But maybe there's more than meets the eye. When I recounted the turtle infestation to my office neighbor E, he thought it significant - a way of saying that one was timid and might quickly withdraw into her shell if confronted. V, our office manager, was dismayed - she had a turtle one, she told me, and he couldn't do anything, couldn't jump or race, wouldn't even play. (She then got a 6-foot iguana, apparently.) [Source of the cool picture above.]

But I've thought of a way (maybe) to turn the turtles into a teaching moment. You've surely heard this story:

There is an Indian story — at least I heard it as an Indian story — about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave) what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? “Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.” (Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 28-29)

Or maybe you know Stephen Hawking's version in A Brief History of Time:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"

Other versions exist but "turtles all the way down" is the punchline, and - I hope - will prove an interesting challenge for a course on religion and secularism. I might give the students both versions. For Hawking, "turtles all the way down" shows the reductio ad absurdam of faith claims. But for Geertz, it shows the wisdom of ancient cultures, or at least of the naive fatuity of the wish to get beyond culture. As he goes on to say: Such, indeed, is the condition of things. ... Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is. (29)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hard of hearing

Had my first meeting with the students in my first year seminar on Secularism today. We didn't talk about the course - the semester doesn't officially begin until next week; the purpose of the meeting was just to get to know each other, and to discuss yesterday's orientation speech by Eddie Glaude. My eleven students are nice, seem to like each other, and seemed comfortable participating in seminar discussion from the start. There are big differences in experience waiting to emerge, I learn from their application essays, but for today we had a friendly discussion about politics and education.

Not about Eddie's talk, you ask? Well, it was supposed to be. After some brief introductions I had everyone write down what they thought important in Eddie's talk, telling them that the purpose of the exercise was both to make sure that everyone's concerns were voiced and to show how various people's impressions are - which is why seminar instruction gives you more perspectives than a lecture. Two students hadn't been able to attend, so I periodically asked them, "based on our discussion, what do you think Eddie Glaude's speech was about?" Sad to say, they never had a chance to find out - the other students (at least the most vocal ones) missed Eddie's main points, or confused them with what our dean, who introduced him, said.

We're going to have to work on this! Listening is hard, but learning can't happen without it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Generation by generation

Well, our academic year started with a bang today! Our orientation speaker, Eddie Glaude, gave a terrific address for the incoming first years. Eddie and I overlapped in graduate school, and it was wonderful to see him in action again. It was also wonderful to see how seriously he took the task of giving the first lecture a new crop of students would hear in college - more than can be said, alas, of past orientation speakers, who tended to be obscure, patronizing or lazy. I'd told Eddie we wanted something about liberal arts, democracy and diversity and if he could throw in some John Dewey (a New School founder and one of his intellectual heroes), so much the better.

So much the better indeed - he did all this and more, in an address entitled "The liberal arts in a time of war." I won't try to summarize his talk (though I'll ask my advisees to try tomorrow when I meet them for the first time), but I'll share with you a line from Dewey which played a central part: every generation has to accomplish democracy all over again. It's a familiar Deweyan (indeed Jeffersonian) idea; in other places Dewey asserts that democratic life has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions, and that Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.

What a fantastic idea to offer idealistic (though fearful of being betrayed by a certain Kenyan-Kansan, if not by the American electorate) young people, especially in connection with the equally Deweyan idea that American democracy is an incomplete project. And yet one student stumped us all during Q&A (though only Eddie had to answer): If every generation has to accomplish democracy anew, does that mean it's always getting better? I've no idea how I would have answered, but was interested that Eddie's first response was "no."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A right to a name

Learned something interesting today: the UN's 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child asserts that every child shall be entitled from his birth to a name (Principle 3). I'd really like to know who came up with this, and what their reasoning was. Principle 3 goes on to say and a nationality, a more practical and actionable matter; but they're quite different things.

Discussing this over dinner with my dear friends J and A (J had read about it in a book about Hannah Arendt, in connection with Arendt's claim that the most fundamental right is the "right to have rights"), we decided that this is very deep. A name makes you a member of a community, a society, just as a number (the KZs were probably in the back of the writer's mind) does the opposite. But then things got (interestingly but frustratingly) complex. What of children called by different names in different parts of a divided society or family? What of those who don't like their given names? And what of names, like the Japanese, Ichiro/Taro 一郎, Jiro 二郎 or 次郎, Saburo 三郎, etc., which are essentially just numbers (1, 2 or next, 3, etc.)? A name may assure you of a social location (at least on paper) but by itself isn't enough to ensure you social respect, let alone autonomy...

What led to this discussion, by the way, was my observation that Rick Warren's question to the presidential candidates "At what point does a baby get human rights?" wasn't just a pro-life formulation but an odd invocation of "human rights," a concept not even a century old. (He just wanted the baby/human contrast, I suspect.)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

So what does one do on a beautiful late summer Saturday after being out of New York for a month? Why, one goes to the Met to catch up on exhibits (like one on the early history of photography, from which this view [taken in 1856!] of - through - Roslin Chapel's South Porch and yard by Roger Fenton hails), and then walks across a Central Park bathed in golden light to stock up on cheese at Fairway.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Cross country

On the flight back from San Diego to New York this (early) morning I spent most of the time snoozing and reading Victoria Nelson's bizarre but fascinating The Secret Life of Puppets (recommended at the Religion & Theater focus group at ATHE and blurbed by Neil Gaiman). Occasional glimpses out the window showed the radio towers atop Black Mountain (but for the marine layer we'd be looking back towards the Pacific); remarkable Dali-worthy shapes somewhere in the West beyond the Grand Canyon; marshes on approach to Newark Airport. Wish the window'd been as clear as last year, or I at least knew how to photoshop so the tint from the dirty window would disappear!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The sea, the sea!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

It's a small world

Have I tired you with my paean to Lego? I'll just say this: Just as I'm over the moon that my nephews have fallen in love with the surf, so I am delighted that they love Lego. The wonders of Lego are like the wonders of soccer and the Macintosh combined, squared, and blessed by Noam Chomsky (linguist, not political commentator). The same pieces make an Alpine village one day, a space station the next, trucks, dining rooms, animals, spaceships, railroads and dancing figures and, in the latest iteration (literally building on yesterday's Hills Hoist), It's a Small World, by way of a Swiss paper cutout and perhaps the memory of the top of a May Pole. Why would anyone want toys which only do one thing?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Like breathing out and breathing in

As the summer winds its way to a close, I'm feeling that what I've learned - that is, learned to see, since it's been all around all along (for instance here) - is the regular irregularity of the world. There are patterns, rhythms, cycles all around us: everyone knows that, and I'd noticed it too. But these patterns are ragged. The rhythm comes not from particular iterations but cumulatively. A statistical average - and beyond it, a mystery. If things aren't precisely the same time after time, what makes it that their average stays the same, enough to keep the wobble from tipping things into chaos?

I'd like to think I'd learned this from the surf - above is the tide calendar for these parts - but that's not it; my father and I have been referring to these calendars (favorite Christmas presents) for years, but I never fully processed what the wobbling line meant as a line. This was the summer I started to appreciate the wondrousness of regular irregularity because of the way it began: with the IMS meditation retreat where I finally got to square one, and observed my breath long enough to notice that it's not the same from breath to breath, but varies widely (while still keeping me going!). It takes me a while to absorb things, so it's taken until the last few weeks for me to start to notice that the surf, the breath of the sea if you will, is the same. And to connect it to the same thing all over everywhere. Wondrous.

One needn't be Buddhist to see this, or make sense of it (not that I think I've made any sense of it, or really expect to). I see now a deeper rationale for the medieval debate about universals and particulars (realism v. nominalism). I'd comfortably sided with the Aristotelians here, who think there's nothing but individuals, with universals no more than the generalizations of our minds. But now it seems way more complex. It may be by generalization that we arrive at universal ideas, but some kind of general tendency or consistency or commitment is at work in the particulars, too, in a way I can't fathom. The question about universals and particulars now seems to be about this: do the variations matter? Or: how do they matter, why do they matter? Are they distractions from universals, or do they constitute them through their very variation?

La Brea

Just took a splendid little trip to Los Angeles - drove up yesterday evening, dropping my brother in law off at LAX on the way, to my dear friends R & A in Eagle Rock for dinner, staying over through a beautiful breakfast at seventies relic Pie 'n Burger in Pasadena. Then I met Suzanna Guzman for coffee, and we got on like a house on fire (somehow, somewhere, something collaborative is going to happen!), before finally wending my way down Arroyo Secco and much of the impressive length of Wilshire Boulevard to meet my friend G, who's just moved from NYC to the City of Angels. We met at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is a very pleasant complex of museums, from the 60s Worlds Fair-like Japanese Pavilion to the new building by Renzo Piano for the Broad Collection of contemporary art (which is the opposite of Libeskind's addition to the Denver Art Museum: dully unremarkable as a building but facilitating wonderful exhibition spaces and an impressive collection, including a whole room of giant Cindy Shermans, Mark Tansey's "Forward Retreat," above, and a wonderful double-S by Richard Serra) to Hancock Park, where we heard a concert by Chucho Valdes. LACMA has a bit of everything - in their African collection I was made deliriously happy by El Anatsui's 2007 "Fading Scroll" (woven from recycled aluminum!), below. LACMA is right next to the La Brea Tar Pits, which I remember from childhood - tar pits into which hapless woolly mammoths, sabertooth tigers and the like slipped, drowned and eventually got perfectly fossilized. Sort of an odd neighbor for an art museum, or is it...?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ripples

All sorts of unexpected causal chains in the news recently. Higher oil prices mean Americans driving fewer miles, which means revenue shortfalls for highways but also a fall in the number of traffic fatalities. Threatened and actual home foreclosures mean some people wanting divorces can't afford them, while their swimming pools, the filters turned off, are breeding grounds for mosquitoes (some of whom, in San Diego, may carry West Nile Virus). Job losses are leading some people to marry to qualify for insurance through their spouses. And abroad, chemical factory shut-downs in Beijing to improve air quality for the Olympics have led to shortfalls for Indian pharmaceutical companies...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Antinomies of race

Hey, did I ever tell you that essay I've been working on forever (you saw a version in March) is just a few months from appearing in print? I corrected the proofs last week, and had to write a 300-word abstract (which I spent the better part of a day futzing about, not that you can tell!). Now, after my months of rewriting, you don't need to read the article at all!

Antinomies of Race:
Diversity and Destiny in Kant
This essay reads Kant’s pioneering work in the theory of ‘race’ in the context of his intellectual projects from ‘physical geography’ to ‘pragmatic anthropology’ by way of ethics. In different periods of Kant’s career, ‘race’ assured meaning in human diversity, confirmed the value of a practical reason-informed understanding of human destiny, and provided a model for the ‘pragmatic’ knowledge of what man ‘can and should make of himself’.
The first part of the essay traces ‘race’ as an advertisement for Kant’s new disciplines of physical geography and anthropology in the 1770s. Giving new meaning to a foreign term with strong associations of breeding and husbandry, Kant proposes the supposedly exceptionless hereditary traits of ‘race’ as the first fruit of a truly scientific ‘natural history’ of humanity. His concerns are not merely classificatory; his 4-‘race’ scheme, modeled on the temperaments, allows a special status for ‘whites’ as at once a ‘race’ and a transcendence of ‘race’.
The essay’s second part follows the refinements of the ‘race’ idea in essays Kant wrote in the 1780s and published in the same journal as his essays on enlightenment and the philosophy of history. Given a new status by the critical turn, ‘race’ is offered a sanction ‘similar’ to the postulates of pure practical reason; its empirical verification shows Kant’s whole critical system is no chimera.
The essay’s third part argues that Kant’s theory of ‘race’ came into its own in the 1990s, gaining wide acceptance. Kant relies on familiarity with it (complete with husbandry-like echoes) in explaining the larger project of the ‘pragmatic anthropology’ without which he thought ethics impossible.
Understanding how the concept of ‘race’ interacted with and absorbed more familiar and still appealing intellectual and practical concerns for Kant, we gain a better sense of its fateful attractiveness to 19th century thinkers.

You should see these guys dance

Meet (mustachioed) Topsy, (sunnies-sporting) Dude and (cross-eyed) Lego Boy, and notice they're on gears: one spins, they all spin.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Perfect web

Latest web in a series which started with one at Melbourne Uni and another outside my home window. This one's under the eaves of our house here, thankfully not as big as the one of which my father sent a picture.

Whatever

Here's a discouraging report on what students learn in college:

During the college years, most students make significant progress …, but large majorities remain in a naïve relativist state, persuaded that many problems have no single correct answer and that none of the possible answers is necessarily better than the others. Only a small minority of seniors emerge convinced that ill-structured problems are susceptible to reasoned arguments based on evidence and that some answers are sounder than others.
(Derek Bok, Our underachieving colleges, 114)

Bok's referring to developmental theories that see college students as intolerant of complexity when they arrive (they think there's a right answer for every question, and seek an authority to deliver it to them) and, if all goes well, moving through a stage of bewildered defensive relativism (there are only opinions and every opinion is equally 'valid') to a comfort with complexity (or "commitment within relativism," as it is sometimes called). Too many get stuck in the relativist rut.

I wonder if our college does better than the average here - or worse...!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

I didn't ask you

There was a baptism today at St. James, the Catholic church I attend with my mother when in California, the second in three Sundays I've been here. The baby a fortnight ago was asleep; today's bawled and screamed as his parents and godparents pledged to raise him in the Church. "I didn't ask you," quipped Father Howard, to laughter from the congregation. Cradle Catholics all (or most), this was our story! Easier that way.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Very impressive

Did you watch the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics? Pretty spectacular. Awe-inspiring. Indeed, there were times where I felt I was experiencing the awe part of a shock and awe offensive, or perhaps charm and awe. China has the tradition, technology and people to do anything: theirs the future, too! The globe above was a stunner, and the taichi with semi-transparent screens showing the flow of qi released by variousmellifluous yet firm-edged moves exquisite. But the opener, the 2008 drummers who occasionally seemed like part of a monstrous digital-age sweatshop, kind of creeped me out. People as pixels? Grim future...!

Friday, August 08, 2008

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Preserve protect profit

Invited my sister and her family to Sea World today, my first family amusement - pardon me, adventure - park experience in a while. We used to go to Sea World a lot as kids, and my sister and I have fond memories of shows where you learned about the animals (including the mascot, the killer whale franchise "Shamu") and about the relationships of individual trainers and whales, dolphins, seals, otters, etc. How things change...

Especially the signature Shamu show, which is now called "Believe" and introduced by a portentous vid about the importance of having beliefs like those of an unidentified boy who, in nostalgic black and white, believes there can be a unique relationship between two species, two worlds, carves a killer whale tail from driftwood on a dark atmospheric beach, and now... has become a trainer at Sea World! That's sort of a pumped-up version of the old personal show, but its ambition is mythic, and its prerecorded sound track (available on a CD for $15.99) epic. It's remarkable that the killer whales' breaches and splashes are coordinated to the music, I guess (so the biggest rises highest just as the music reaches a climax and it's hard not to burst into Pavlovian tears), but this makes them seem like adjuncts to a media spectacle. Since we no longer learn about the individual whales or their species, it's all symbol - top predator, will trust you if you respect it, packs a wallop of a splash for the 16 rows in the "soak zone" if you train it to. Music and stunts, not words, it's more like a military air show.

"Believe" was introduced in San Diego in 2006, after four years of development, as part of a rebranding. (A quick internet search informs me that Sea World was acquired in 1989 by Anheuser-Busch, which has itself just been acquired by Belgian InBev; was it ever the independent local entity it seemed to us as kids?) Our ultimate goal for this show is to impassion guests to believe in themselves, a vice president of Anheuser-Busch said, We want guests to believe they can accomplish the seemingly impossible, as our trainers do in this show through their relationships with these top predators of the ocean.

Quite inspiring, huh. But before we got to see the "Believe" video we heard the same deep-voiced announcer in a schmaltzy Anheuser-Busch Here's to Our Heroes featurette (introduced in 2005, presumably also as part of the rebranding), followed by one of Shamu's trainers inviting all members of the armed forces and their families in the audience, "and our allies," to stand for an ovation. I first thought this was just a nod to the military character of San Diego, home to the Pacific Fleet, but it's seamlessly woven into the show. So I got to thinking... Four years before 2006... This is really about America, the superpower with a heart of gold. It's the world's top predator, but if you respect it it will be your friend! Move over bald eagle, we have a better mascot for the post-9/11 age.

I don't want to push the Sea World-military analogy (if it is just analogy) too far, though the prices and quality of refreshments could be Halliburton, and at least one of the dozens of t-shirt motifs presents Sea World's original mission as a research and conservation center as if it were a military project (SeaWorld: preserve - protect). It's just... America. And what it's all about, worth every preserving and protecting? Commerce. Buy your $7.99 refillable souvenir drink container (empty, it's another $2.89 to fill it) as you dream your impossible dream, and thank God for the noble trainers who have since childhood wanted nothing more than to devote their lives to making killers our friends.

Surf's up!

Today is the day my older nephew - five and a half years old - really discovered the ocean. My sister had bought him a little boogie board, and the surf was lively but kind. And he was in there, jumping into wave after wave, for most of an hour! When a wave toppled him and water got in his goggles, he just emptied them out and went right back to where he'd left off. This is a wonderful breakthrough for someone who in years past has been rather stand-offish about water. He lives in Australia, of course, which has splendid beaches on every coast. Long may he ride the waves!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Empty center

A morsel from Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which I'll be using in my secularism class. (Remarkably many are the issues concerning the nature of religion, America, etc., which you can find in these passages.)

Our protagonist Shadow is traveling with two gods marooned in America by immigrant communities whose descendants have lost interest in them, the Russian Czernobog and the West African Anansi, toward a meeting with the newer gods who are trying to eliminate them. The meeting will take place at the geographical center of America. Other important events take place at roadside attractions like The House on the Rock and Rock City, places of real power, though tourists no longer know quite why they go there. This meeting, however, has to be at a different kind of place.

As far as anyone could figure it out, the exact center of the continental United States was several miles from Lebanon, Kansas, on Johnny Grib's hog farm. By the 1930s the people of Lebanon were all ready to put a monument up in the middle of the hog farm, but Johnny Grib said that he didn't want millions of tourists coming in and tramping all over and upsetting the hogs, so they put the monument to the geographical center of the United States two miles north of the town. They built a park, and a stone monument to go in the park, and a brass plaque on the monument. They blacktopped the road from the town, and, certain of the in[/]flux of tourists waiting to arrive, they even built a motel by the monument. Then they waited.
The tourists did not come. Nobody came. ..."Which is why," concluded Mr. Nancy, ... "the exact center of America is a tiny run-down park, an empty church, a pile of stones, and a derelict motel."
"Hog farm," said Czernobog. "You just said that the real center of America was a hog farm."
"This isn't about what is," said Mr. Nancy. "It's about what people think. It's all imaginary anyway. That's why it's important. People only fight over imaginary things." (426-7)

"That," said Czernobog, "is why we are meeting at the center. Is . . ." He frowned. "What is the word for it? The opposite of sacred?"
"Profane," said Shadow, without thinking.
"No," said Czernobog. "I mean, when a place is less sacred than any other place. Of negative sacredness. Places where they can build no temples. Places where people will not come, and will leave as soon as they can. Places where gods only walk if they are forced to."
"I don't know," said Shadow. "I don't think there is a word for it."
"All of America has it, a little," said Czernobog. "That is why we are not welcome here." (430)

(My page numbers refer to the US mass market edition, whose cover is pictured first above. The British edition, pictured next, is, methinks, the coolest, though there's bound to be some lesson in the different ways British and American designers imagine this not quite not anti-American novel by a Brit about America...) (I've ordered the British "Author's preferred version," apparently longer by 12,000 words, both because of the scholarly habit which kicks in around courses, and because I'm curious what the presumably American editors insisted on cutting.)

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Elephants in rooms and out










A few scenes from the Denver trip: the mammoth costume from a production of "The Skin of Our Teeth" hanging from the ceiling in one of the backstage workshops we saw at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and models of stage sets from other past performances; some theologically sophisticated New Mexico retablos and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's Guernica-inspired "Trade Canoe for Don Quixote" (2004) at the Denver Art Museum; a pensive settler on the edge of a fountain at Broadway and Colfax; Elephant Butte and snowlike-seeds of some kind on the Boulder Creek trail and grasses at Red Rocks above Boulder; reflected skyscrapers in Denver's downtown; a pretty rose window at Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church and - to round things out below - a mural in the historic Brown Palace hotel, both across the street from our hotel.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

ATHE for Religion and theater!

Well, my last day at ATHE (I'm at Denver International Airport, waiting for a flight back to San Diego) was a treat. It began with a warm-up led by someone from the American Theater Movement Association, based on stretches he learned in Russia, a wonderful way to start a conference day - though it left me by turns super-limber and suddenly stiff for a while! Then I checked out of my hotel, took a last stroll through downtown Denver, and spent some time in an unshuttered Starbucks finalizing my remarks for the panel C and I were to lead. (It was across the street from a shuttered one, and put me in mind of the Starbucks I used to frequent in Melbourne, many of which are among the 61 of the chain's 84 Australian branches just closed.)

Next I attended a staged reading of Volver, Volver, Volver by Leonard Madrid (winner of the first Latino PlayWorks prize), a play so new it's still in process - and was impressed again at the candor and care with which creative artists respond to each other's work. The play was 50 minutes long and quite enjoyable, and the 40-minute "talkback" was even more enjoyable, as the crew who'd rehearsed the reading described their experience with their parts, and many members of the audience praised and discussed the work, suggested changes, etc. As the discussion went on, I found I had lots of suggestions, too, and filled the margins of the response sheet with leading questions we'd all received. It's entirely different from an academic presentation of work in progress, much more supportive and helpful, nobody trying to draw attention to themselves but all trying to understand the artist's project and help him make it better, fuller, truer.

The last two panels I went to were a wonderful way to wind up the conference for me, taking me deep into the issues around "religion and theater" which brought me here in the first place. The first, called "Quakers, Mormons, and Catholics, Oh My! Liberal Arts at Conservative Schools," was an eye-opener. Three panelists (the Catholic couldn't make it, but a Quaker teaching at a Southern Baptist college was there instead) discussed the difficulties of running a theater program in colleges suspicious of modern theater. It was absolutely fascinating to learn about the suspicions, the ways they were addressed, the opponents and the allies of these programs. The panelist from an Evangelical Quaker college described the situation all faced - parents, alumni and donors come to public performances, and want to see proof that the school is "Christ-centered," not evidence of critical thought - so lots of contemporary plays are off limits, but only for these public performances, in classes and unpublicized student showcases, there's more freedom. Each of our panelists described ways s/he had found to convince timid or suspicious administrators that theater built Christian character through deeper understanding of others, etc.

But another set of concerns was more interesting: students who've signed a "lifestyle pledge" forswearing profanity, sex, intoxicants, etc. are troubled (or jealous) at seeing their fellows engaging in these behaviors out on stage. Not acting, engaging in. In general it seemed that everyone worried that playing the part of a sinner could be bad for the soul of the actor; these worries (familiar to secular culture too, how numberless are the plays and films about actors consumed or possessed by characters they play) reflected interesting theological differences, and forced one member of our panel to forswear method acting for viewpoints instead - the actor's shamanistic channeling and transfiguration of which my friend C talks were seen as dangerous here, and contained by constant reminders that you never become the character, you are always still yourself. We were left with questions about whether one could train a successful actor in this way - but also with questions about whether there aren't in fact ways in which theater can be harmful for actors and spectators. It was amazing to be in a discussion where both of these kinds of questions could be raised.

And then it was time for "When hell's no fable: Fostering Dialogue Through a Meeting of Everyman, Doctor Faustus, and Hell House," the panel C and I put together (also sponsored by the Religion and Theater Focus Group). We opened with an acting exercise, a brief manifesto from me about the value of reading Everyman and as if it were Hell House and Hell House as if it were Everyman, and C's description of the explosive discussion the juxtaposition produced in our class. Next, a graduate student from the University of Maryland described a variety of Hell House-like productions she's studying for her dissertation, many dramatically much more interesting than Hell Houses: unlike anyone else who's worked on these plays, she's actually spent time with the communities which produce them - I think we provided the setting for the first public presentation of her research. And then a professor from a Catholic university in Los Angeles took us on a quick tour of laughable devils in theater from the English Renaissance (when laughing at the devil was the way of calling his bluff) to Hollywood (which oscillates anxiously between silly and really scary satans).

The ensuing discussion was great. We were a small group (it was late in the day) but everyone you'd want there was there: the author of the first article on Hell Houses, a grad student at UCSB writing his dissertation on it, and - thanks to C - Stephen Wangh, whose own work in trying to use theater to bridge the divide between conservative Christian and secular culture (Testimony: Scenes from an American apocalypse) I saw a few months ago. After various people compared notes on various Hell Houses they had seen, Wangh took the discussion in a really interesting direction: he'd found that his attempts to understand conservative Christians (he's a skeptic) would reach a point beyond which he could not go, and as he turned back from that point, he was filled with sadness. I was reminded of the "existential regret" Lee Yearley describes, and of the sadness missionaries must feel on not being able to convert their friends (I only mentioned the former), and then the grad student from Maryland told us she'd taken her husband to a Judgment House and he (an unbeliever) had felt a sadness at not being able to share the joy of the production, a sadness which lasted several days.

Wow. These are amazing people, these (religion and) theater folk. What a treat to get to know them! Ah, boarding's started, so adieu for now!

Antichrist alert

It shall be known that in 2008 the world will be blessed. They will call him The One. So begins the latest McCain ad, as we see the earth from space and hear waves of "O Bam A O Bam A." After some meaningless Obama clips, and to golden images of cheering people to waves of world music, the portentous narrator continues, And he has anointed himself ready to carry the burdens of the world. After the narrator quotes "Barack" an intertitle asks Have you seen the light? And we see Obama at a campaign rally saying, creepily, "A light will shine down, from somewhere, it will light upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and you will say to yourself, I have to vote for Barack." The ad goes on to show Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea, with Obama's a-little-too presidential campaign logo emerging from it, and ends, He may be The One, but is he ready to lead? (Watch it if you haven't recently eaten.)

It's beyond icky. A few critics (like Bob Herbert in the brilliantly titled "Running while black") see the race card played in the "Celeb" ad mixing choice images from Obama in Berlin with images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, another masterpiece of misinformation ingeniously coopting and twisting Obama campaign images and sounds. But do they see what card is being played in the "Praise the One" ad? Secular naifs will think it's a witty (and even envious) response to idolatrous Obamaniacs, a gesture toward "The Matrix." No, the One has a name with 6 + 6 + 6 letters, and he's not just an overweeningly ambitious man headed for a fall, he's the false messiah who convinces the world he is the true one. Read the lines from it I just quoted, if the Biblical resonances didn't jump out at you the first time. "Anointed"? "Burdens of the world"? And why doesn't he admit where the light behind his mind-control is coming from - it's not coming from God, clearly.

I would be tempting just to laugh at these ads, acts of desperation of a campaign in its last throes. But they are incredibly well-made, and insidious as hell. They're not about what they seem to be about. They work at the level of images and individual words and phrases. And they will play in Peoria. I've been checking the internet periodically on "Obama + Antichrist" since last Fall, when a few of us in "Cultures of the religious right" were reminded of Obama by the description of Nicolae Carpathia, the Antichrist in the Left Behind novels (who exercises mind control in words like Obama's in the epiphany clip); he's also evoked by the opening line of the other ad, "He's the biggest celebrity in the world" (Carpathia is anointed "Sexiest Man Alive" by People Magazine in a special issue the same time the UN makes him its Secretary General.) Even without Carpathia as intermediary, the connection's been made by people who are actually looking out for Antichrist, too. Is this the McCain camp's way to get to the tens of millions of evangelical readers of Left Behind, the scores of millions who anticipate an end of days like that described in Revelations?

At first I was disgusted by the attack ads coming from McCain (and these all end with McCain's voice saying "I approved this ad"), but I'm starting to get worried. How naive of us liberals to think the Rove people just disappeared, had lost their edge, and their unscrupulosity. They're not going down without a fight, and they fight dirty. It makes me sick worried.

Flying elephants

The ATHE had a plenary this afternoon called "Elephants in the room: Manifestos on subjects we don't want to talk about." Six senior figures in the world of theater education talked about the need for ATHE's various subdivisions to talk to each other more, for college theater departments to train students for more than acting jobs they'll never get, to move beyond stereotypes in casting, for more work in African American theater history, etc. The most unsettling manifesto was a prediction that theater education as it now exists in American universities will not survive the transition to more cost-effective, STEM [science, technology, engineering + math]-focused, increasingly online education. It was interesting to realize that the problems we in the humanities face are that much more serious for theater programs which need smaller and longer classes, more space (for rehearsals as well as performances) and bigger budgets (for productions) than the rest of us.

But none of these manifestos were very controversial, and it wasn't until the discussion was opened up to the floor - most of the conference was there - that things got really interesting. Two areas struck me as particularly important, and it was exiting in each case to see at least a first step ATHE and its members might make towards addressing them. These areas relate to the non-performing liberal arts, too. Both involve more honesty about the state of a discipline - meaning not just what gets published and taught, but who's in it, what they are doing and in what settings they are doing it - and point towards ways in which a professional society might respond in a meaningful way.

The first issue first arose as the complaint that ATHE talks a lot about reaching out to disadvantaged communities, but does little of this. Community theater, service learning, etc. are not enough. But the beginning of a new perspective on it came from an impassioned plea by professor at a community college, who reminded us that 50% of American college students - including the vast majority of those from disadvantaged backgrounds - attend community colleges, and encounter theater there; and yet, faculty at community colleges get no respect from the profession - and were virtually unrepresented at this conference. What if ATHE reached out to community college faculty and students, and recognized them for their actual doing of what ATHE now mainly theorizes about?

The second issue involved another community of marginalized theater educators. It was raised first by someone who said he'd recently made the transition from "what I call fake-ulty to faculty" - from adjunct to tenure-track - and described two dysfunctional worlds, the first unsupported and exploited, the other "awash in a sea of administration." As you may know, tenure-track and even full-time positions in American universities are getting rarer every year,with more and more of instruction done by poorly-paid adjuncts paid course by course or semester by semester with no job security or benefits. Many of our graduate students will end up as adjuncts for at least a part of their professional careers. The opening to something new came from a young woman - an adjunct's - observation that ATHE is too expensive for adjuncts; graduate students pay a reduced registration fee, but when will ATHE realize that more and more of the field have completed graduate school but without finding well-paid full-time positions with a research/travel budget? Shouldn't there be a reduced fee for those stuck in adjunct "limbo," too?

Both suggestions - reaching out to community colleges and to adjuncts - are more realistic responses to the difficult world of contemporary academia than I've heard in a long while. It's probably too much to ask academics to put the culture of rank and status behind them - even the well-paid don't get paid that well, rank and status (and only among academics) is all they have. But an organization like ATHE could make significant changes in the culture of a profession by recognizing the obsolescence of the old "guild" model in which everyone who deserves a good job finds one (and those who end up adjuncting, etc., deserve to) in the present academic universe. Not every qualified graduate finds a good position, not by a long shot, and not every full-time professor is the sharper knife in the drawer; some of us were just in the right place at the right time. What if our professional societies, instead of reinforcing the caprice of chance, were ways of compensating for it? To a considerable extent they do this already, but community college and adjunct faculty need to be welcomed in. It's the least the rest of us could do, seeing as that they're doing so much of the heavy lifting of higher education ... and, on issues like making education available to more kinds of people, they're the front lines.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Justly neglected

Summer in America, you may know, means Shakespeare! Amateur and professional and youth productions, many outdoors and free, take place in every city. And there's a good number of Shakespeare Festivals, too. One is the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, held at the University of Colorado in Boulder (45 minutes by bus from Denver). Here's their hip teeshirt; the tattoos refer to his plays, of course.

I went to Boulder today after the R&T preconference ended, took a brief hike, peeked into some Buddhist-inspired shops, and saw "Henry the Eighth," a play only Shakespeare Festivals perform, and only for the sake of completeness. CSF's is the only production of this play in the US this year, and they haven't done it since 1971. I'd say they can wait another 37 years before doing it again - some things are justly neglected! Even Homer nods, and this Shakespeare seems shapeless and dated. Now I suppose that someone's production might someday find a way of presenting this play which makes us revise our judgments, but today's wasn't that production. Nevertheless, it was nice to get a bit closer to the Rockies, and to get a taste, however fleeting, of Boulder, one of those sacred places where (white) people go to get in touch with themselves, with nature, with whatever else exists!