Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Torrey Pines State Reserve in full bloom!
It's taken me months (I kid you not) but I have finally arrived at the end of Alexis Wright's big Aboriginal novel Carpentaria. It's epic. Vast and fruitful and violent and teeming with story-spinning details, it switches in and out of tenses, idioms and eras with the agility of a school of flashing fish - sometimes in mid-sentence. It's hard to follow (by design, apparently), but if you go the distance with it, a world opens up around you opulent almost to the point of oppressive with power and life. It's continental in its scale, like Leslie Marmon Silko's 1992 Almanac of the Dead. Somewhat less apocalyptically than Silko's book, Carpentaria imagines a continent shucking off the accretions of settler society, the cycles of nature and of indigenous people's ancestors working together. But Wright's book conveys a more powerful sense of the natural world - the land, the sea, flocks of birds, schools of fish, weather systems, subterranean rivers - and of what it must be like to feel your human identity rooted deeply deeply in this power and its ever-unspooling stories. There's no romanticizing in the midst of this mythicizing; the story is hard, and the human characters are as complex and agitated as nature, but not without pathos. Wright's language is by turns oracular, colloquial and onomotopoeic-free associative. The sound track, though? Against a drone of Aboriginal singing the land made as much visible as audible by the flows of Wright's writing, it's an uncanny country and western.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Cyborg travel

Seems there are more of these to take along every time I travel...

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cutting out

California in two more days! (Photo [!] from the San Diego Union)


I usually get a haircut before heading home to California (I fly Sunday morning), but this time I decided to shear my basil plants instead. Presto pesto!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Live option!

I'm reading sociologist of religion Meredith McGuire's Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life, and enjoying it greatly. "Lived religion in New York City" is the name of my Fall course, and I'm assembling materials for it as we speak, and exploring field trip possibilities. McGuire's offering both. McGuire's book begins with an account of medieval Christian religion - before the "Long Reformation" of 1300-1700 centralized religious power, and set in motion the contingent and oppressive eccesiastical and political structures which have been naturalized in modern theories of religion. Borrowing from the historian of "popular religion" Peter Burke, McGuire brings in Breughels' Fight between Carnival and Lent" (at the KHM in Vienna). With the Long Reformation, Lent seems to have won. We've forgotten that both fasting and feasting used to be religiously meaningful activities, and can't quite believe that both took place inside as well as outside ecclesiastical precincts. But the premise of the whole "lived religion" movement is that its only church folk who think Carnival was defeated, or entirely secularized. We're going to have a ball!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Der Erde gleich

Joplin, Missouri, before the most powerful tornado on record tore through, and after. (From here) 200 mph winds tore the bark off trees.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sharing is hard

I'm not sure what the scale here is, but the results (cited here) are interesting.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Everyone must come out!

Today the New York Times started a marvelous and important weeklong series on the coming-out stories of today's GLBT teens. Judging from this first installment, we'll be meeting some truly brave teenagers - brave in acknowledging their sexuality, and also in admitting they are not out of the woods yet. The sexuality question is settled, but not the further life part. Several describe a lonely world of only online friends. Pockets of light and hope are provided by online communities, school "Gay Straight Alliances," a few accepting family members and friends. Those who are interviewed or write in know that "it gets better." (Several refer to that phrase, or to the thus-named series of videos - our church is making one - made by older GLBT folks after the spate of bullying suicides last year). But with great candor they admit they're still in process; there's much yet in need of improvement. One wants to hug each of them, and thank them for their courage and integrity. You're beautiful, and you make us so proud!

American society is changing with remarkable speed on issues like gay marriage and families. This series confirms, however, that even now most of us aren't born into that world in which we can be at home, and need to find it, claim it, imagine ourselves in it. Tomorrow's installment of the Times series looks to focus on the experiences of religious teens - the ones our video aims at, too. Can't wait!

Update, 28/5: Now that the series is finished, it's the testimonials sent in by readers that are most moving. So many. And such a reminder that there is so much pain, so much loneliness. And these are the ones who lived to tell the tale... If anyone thought that the days of painful coming out (or not) were over, think again.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

GPS Mind

Our four-part discussion series "Buddhist Christians?" wound up today. Nominally based on Paul Knitter's Without Buddha I Couldn't Be a Christian (which not many people had a chance to read) it ended up being a more informal experience-sharing thing. While knowledge about Buddhist traditions is pretty thin on the ground, it turns out a good number of people have some significant experience with meditation or contemplation - and that's the kind of experience they're interested in, not my wonky questions about American lay Buddhism, dual religious belonging, etc. (though they were intrigued by what I described somewhat ambitiously as the "new normal" of exposure to and participation in multiple traditions)! I'm cool with that. How cool? Our discussions gave me an image for it. Jewish-Buddhist teacher-psychoanalyst Sophie Boorstein, interviewed on my old fave Krista Tippett explored the spiritual lessons in a car's GPS system:

Boorstein: I've never said it in a public audience, but I just thought about it recently. I decided that — I'll find out soon if this is a good analogy — but I was thinking about the GPS in my car. It never gets annoyed at me. If I make a mistake, it says, "Recalculating." And then it tells me to make the soonest left turn and go back. I thought to myself, you know, I should write a book and call it "Recalculating" because I think that that's what we're doing all the time.

If something happens, it challenges us and the challenge is, OK, so do you want to get mad now? You could get mad, you could go home, you could make some phone calls, you could tell a few people you can't believe what this person said or that person said. Indignation is tremendously seductive, you know, and to share with other people on the telephone and all that. So to not do it and to say, wait a minute, apropos of you said before, wise effort to say to yourself, wait a minute, this is not the right road. Literally, this is not the right road. There's a fork in the road here. I could become indignant, I could flame up this flame of negativity or I could say, "Recalculating." I'll just go back here.

Tippett: So this is an example of technology instilling us with spiritual discipline — we find so much to criticize.

Boorstein: And no matter how many times I don't make that turn, it will continue to say, "Recalculating." The tone of voice will stay the same.

Tippett: That's good. I think it's a good analogy.

Andean doodles

Delightfully doodly 1400-year-old woven tunic from Peru, on view here.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Excess baggage

When I told a writer friend of mine Wednesday that the Aboriginal Australia course had turned all my ideas about teaching and liberal arts on their heads, or at least their sides, he suggested I try to write a "personal narrative" about my experience with the course. An interesting idea, though I'm not sure what it entails... an essay, I'm thinking.

In a first attempt, I found I hardly dwelt on Australia at all! Rather it exposed and explored the prior commitments and ideals I brought to this material - none of them remotely related. Birrinbirrin's "This is where we stop," one of the mantras of the course, looked like an echo of Wittgenstein's "Justification comes to an end"; the gerontocratic social order looked like an instance of Aristotle's emphasis on the phronimos; elders' drip-feeding of important knowledge to the young and wrapping esoteric within exoteric rituals looked like inflections of the Mahayana idea of upaya; the distribution of knowledge among sections and subsections of a society looked like an iteration of the structured difference I sensed in ancient western theories of the temperaments; the acceptance that there are Dreamings you can and need never know looked weirdly like Isaiah Berlin's pluralism or Lee Yearley's "existential regret."

I suppose I should be very embarrassed by this. The fact that all this baggage is among the things I find most impressive in human thought and culture hardly changes that - just confirms that I was projecting. On the other hand, explaining what impressed me in the Aboriginal materials in terms comprehensible to people who've never studied or are likely to study them makes a kind of sense. Maybe what really happened is that this was how I explained it to myself...

It is definitely true that these commitments have all been in the background of my teaching vision and practice, something it's taken this exercise and the experience it seeks to understand to make clear.

My next effort at the personal narrative will focus on things in our course materials which I found harder to digest or even to understand.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Temple of Dendur pool from Japanese gallery, Metropolitan Museum.


Our college recognition ceremony is always a strangely disorienting experience. We dress up in the faux-Renaissance garb of a conventional American university. A brass band plays Renaissance music, Handel and Elgar. It takes place in a sombre church bursting with people in cheery summer attire. When the seniors process by, you wonder if you're at the wrong ceremony - the vast majority are students you've never seen or even heard of, certainly not taught. (This does make the glimpse of each familiar face a giddily joyous occasion.) At least there are speeches to confirm that this is Lang, one by the dean, one by a student, and one by a faculty member. (I gave the faculty one in 2006.)
Well, this year trumped them all. We were in a new church - the rather boxy Calvary-St. George's Episcopal at Stuyvesant Park, having outgrown the capacity of the church on our block, First Presbyterian. (This also meant we couldn't have a reception at college following; that was moved to last night instead, and poorly attended.) Faculty robed in the gloom of a high-vaulted stone side chapel engraved with the names of 19th century wardens and vestrymen, while students got in their kit in the "Choir Crypt." As we processed in, music seemed to be coming from the crypt too - did it take a dean who's a classical musician to replace live with recorded fanfares? Faculty got to sit in rows behind the place where the altar would ordinarily stand, which gave a good view (above). But.

As speakers got up to speak, starting with the dean, it became clear we weren't going to be sharing much. What one of my religious studies colleagues described as the "Episcopal sound system" amplified their words over the pews, but when they hit the east wall they bounced back, blurring the words beyond recognition for us behind the pulpit. Since I was visible, in the second row, I tried to react appropriately whenever there seemed to be a joke anyway, but really, I understood nothing! (I did make out, I think, the student speaker saying "to tell the truth, I'm really scared," and the faculty speaker warning against doing something involving NYU!)

It wasn't quite as bad as the year they put the faculty behind a wooden screen, but it was very strange to hear the students and their families laughing and applauding speeches we couldn't make out. (It feels like a "graduation under water," one of my colleagues said.) As a faculty member you feel yourself fading firmly into the past during this ceremony, but this took the cake. It's as though we weren't even part of it, just part of the archaic furnishings the occasion demanded. (When the dean asked the students to thank the faculty and they jumped to their feet and whooped and clapped, it took us a while to notice that it was directed at us!) And then, there being no reception, we marched out as more music was piped in. We slipped out of our rented gowns and into the street, moist from a rain which must have fallen during the ceremony.

But this wasn't about us! Congratulations Melissa, Terese, Nate, Patrick, Rachel, Helia, Sonny, Dylan, Sandy, Aidan, John, Jaz, Samson, Geoff, Luke, Ali, Charlie, Liz, Kingsley, Kaleb, Jamie, Kam, Celine, Josh, Ra, Jordan, André, Richard and Zach!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hard times

Commencement is tomorrow, so it might seem a bit insensitive of me to put this up. (The situation's actually considerably worse than this: the article this is taken from notes that only 56% of last year's graduates had jobs by this Spring, compared to 90% as recently as three years ago.) But since they know exactly what's going on, denying it on my part would be more insensitive. We all know that the "Great Recession" (which seems to be considering going double-dip) has not affected everyone equally, but rather left many of us comfortably in place while pulling the rug out from under others in drastic and lasting ways. If we don't recall those suffering, we might think that the situation's bearable, and acquiesce in the return of the old regime redistributing wealth to the already wealthy.

Those of us with the privilege of job security should also be thinking about ways for those excluded from rewarding work to continue to lead rewarding lives.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Regimes of knowledge

I've just finished (only slightly belatedly!) Margaret Simons' fascinating but quite long book on the Kumarangk/Hindmarsh Island Bridge saga, The Meeting of the Waters. There's much to praise in it, and if I teach the Aboriginal Australia course again, I'll use her chapter on the Mathews Enquiry instead of the Tonkinson essay. Not, or not just, because she vindicates the "sacred women's business," but because with clarity and compassion she shows all of the very many sides in the long series of investigations and judgments in dynamic interaction.

I don’t think that it was Ngarrindjeri culture that was romanticised during the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Affair — or not only Ngarrindjeri culture. I think it was our own, by which I mean Western European culture. We believed in judicial process, and the ability to find the truth. We believed in books over the testimony of oral culture. We were very confident about our ‘common sense’ and where it might lead us.
We like to think of our culture as open. We value transparency as a democratic virtue. This is one of the stories we tell about ourselves. But in fact, as this story shows, information is distributed unevenly and communicated when it suits people to do so. Information follows the lines of power. Aboriginal culture makes this explicit. Western European culture — and my own journalistic culture — like to pretend it isn’t necessarily so.
(Sydney: Hodder, 2003), 454

Monday, May 16, 2011


This lovely photograph is part of the final reflection to "Aboriginal Australia" of one of the students in the class, Abigail Amalton. She describes it:

is a representation of a world in which all of time exists in the present moment. Images representing the prehistoric/natural past, the historical past and the current post-industrial era blend together in a single space. Objects from all timelines exist simultaneously - they do not follow a linear progression separate from each other.

She follows this thought to a sort of politics of multiculturalism, grounded in an Aboriginal-inspired sense that there are things we don't and perhaps won't understand.

Do we have to understand something fully to allow it a place in this world?

This world is not merely for us. I do not believe we have the right to eliminate from the world anything that we find incompatible with our way of life. It is arrogant (and plainly incorrect) to believe that the human experience is limited only to what is within our cultural boundaries.

Not unlike a young child, the mainstream of the dominant culture in this world is insistent on demanding how exactly the world should conform to its wishes. But perhaps it now needs to listen instead of dictate.

I wonder what it will take for people to listen.

I do not understand Aboriginal culture. This does not mean I cannot seek to protect it.

Unsettled thoughts

So, in my own defence, could it be that my understanding of liberal arts education seems colonial because I come at it as a philosopher, and historian of ideas? The philosopher thinks that arguments can and should float free of particular contexts of utterance, indeed, that that is their point. Nobody loses when more people learn to think more clearly and profoundly. And my kind of historian of ideas thinks that the past can and should be everyone's legacy. The dead are not robbed when we keep their projects and concerns alive, and might even be redeemed by such reuse. (It does Aristotle good to be used by women!)

I don't think I quite understand the past as terra nullius. I object when people get it wrong, and have been known to feel that one of my jobs is to protect the past from present appropriation. (There are abundant presentist reasons to protect "the pastness of the past" but, at least in the religious ethics class, I suggest that it is a minority view in human history to suppose that we don't have very real duties to the dead.) I guess I do think that, properly taken care of, the past is - as the saying goes - an inexhaustible resource. I do wonder, now that I put it this way, if this isn't the way the settler colonial regards the "old world" from which his ancestors came. And then, by some complicated projection, other "old worlds" like those of indigenous peoples...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Die Walk

The Metroplitan Opera is halfway into a new "Ring." Tickets are absurdly expensive (and quickly sold out), but I've been curious to see "the machine," the massive moving set which director Robert LePage designed for it. So I joined a few hundred other priced-out opera buffs watching "Die Walküre" on Live in HD at a movie theater on 42nd Street (where it was announced as THE METROPOLITAN OPERA: DIE WALK). A few observations: The "Ring" really is about a relatively small number of individuals going through profound emotional changes, and it's nice to be able to see them up close. Especially when the cast is as strong as this one was and with James Levine conducting. And especially when the set seems a big waste of space, forcing the performers to move haltingly in the spaces it doesn't take up. I imagine watching "Walküre" from my usual perch in the Family Circle would have been like watching a few tiny figures moving slowly left to right in front of a low-calibre UFO parked on the stage.

So the machine was a disappointment. But it was actually fun to see the whole Met in HD rigmarole - Placido Domingo as host, and interviews with singers as they headed backstage at the end of an act or assembled in preparation of the next. It was like backstage interviews of athletes or guest performers on a TV show, fluffy but not in the end banalizing: everyone's reverence for the opera was evident.

In the end the main drawback turned out to be the sound. I'm listening to a CD of "Walküre" as we speak (conducted by a much younger James Levine), and my stereo system gives a deeper, fuller sound. A main star of a Wagner opera is the orchestra, and it was not served well by a sound editing which foregrounded the singers. It may be that you have to be in the house to get the full experience of the shimmering waves and moving swells of the orchestra.

Suspending knowledge...

I've been trying to find the best way of articulating where the experience of teaching about Australian Aboriginal traditions has left me, what led one student to liken my closing remarks to the moment when Tibetan monks, who've spent days making a sand mandala, abruptly sweep it all away.

Our final readings related to the Kumarangk/Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy. Last week we read an assessment of the anthropological evidence offered to the Royal Commission by Robert Tonkinson that came close to endorsing the “fabrication” view. But for the last class, the readings were from the two rival groups of Ngarrindjeri women themselves: Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking, compiled by the so-called “proponents” of “secret women’s business," and The Cost of Crossing Bridges by Dulcie Wilson, a leader of the so-called “dissidents.” (The former was in our library; the latter I had to order especially from a used bookseller in Australia.) It seemed important to me to leave the last word of the class to Aboriginal voices, but also to make clear that there is no single Aboriginal voice to which to defer.

This was partly scholarly due diligence, partly my own commitment to provide voice to un-PC positions. It's also the sort of way I like ending a class - not with closure but with a membership card in an ongoing enterprise: after our work together this semester I trust you know enough about what's going on here to come to your own conclusions or further inquiries - over to you!

But this time was different. The Kumarangk case hinges on alleged secret knowledge, and my intention was in fact for them to reach an impasse. We don't have enough evidence to come to our own conclusions, and, if we have learned anything in this class, we know we are neither likely nor entitled to get enough evidence. I suppose I suspended knowledge to make room for faith - whom do you trust? One student said he appreciated the importance of faith's appearing here, since this was after all a Religious Studies class, but my point was more political. We - the academic community - can't be the judges here. It's not our business. The best we can do is recognize whose business it is.

I've been planning to let this be the course's finale from the start, as you know. It brings together issues of difference across Aboriginal traditions and pan-Aboriginal movements, problems of sedentarization and assimilation and Aboriginal Christianities, the "invention of tradition," challenges of different understandings of gender in Aboriginal as well as European Australian culture, tensions in the role of scholars - especially anthropologists... and of course it's a signal case of the collision of Aboriginal cultures of traditional knowledges with western law. What a great way to finish, I thought, a fireworks finale! (At one point I'd even contemplating fabricating copies of the infamous sealed envelopes to use as visual aids.)

I expected to end with a positive spin on a bitter irony: although even the South Australian government has dropped its fabrication charge, the bridge has been built - but the Ngarrindjeri haven't been destroyed by it. In January I was taken by the claim of a (male) Ngarrindjeri elder in a TV spot about the bridge: "We may use the bridge to access our land and waters but culturally and morally we cannot come to terms with this bridge." This seems like a powerful image of the forced reinventions of Aboriginal traditions, I reflected. Some gaps are meant to stay unbridged. But in time, especially colonial and postcolonial time, nothing meant to stay apart is safe from being bridged. How do I teach without invidious bridge-building?

That was the question, and the sweeping away was my last-ditch effort to ensure that no bridges had been built. But isn't building bridges what education is all about?

This might sound little but it's huge. I expected at the outset that I'd be teaching about a fascinatingly different economy of knowledge, one embedded in complex and complementary kinship structures of custodianship, performance and transmission which are themselves anchored in specific sites and linked to the world of flora and fauna, ancestors and ancestral beings. That happened. But I didn't anticipate that teaching this in my familiar liberal arts setting would start to pose fundamental questions about the economy of knowledge of the liberal arts, not really. But has it ever!

How can I put it? You could put it in terms of the knowledge system among Aboriginal peoples, misunderstood as founded in "secrecy." As we learned early on, "secret" doesn't mean a given person isn't acquainted with it but that s/he can't use it. The Warlpiri use the English words "cheap" and "dear" for public and restricted performances, but it's a mistake to think that "cheap" business is any less important than the "dear"; indeed, since it unites the community, it's arguably the most important.

It's better to think of the "sacred-secret" instead as part of a larger system of knowledge generation and transmission defined by:
ownership: certain people own certain knowledge but are also owned by it; they are responsible for it, and their identity is defined by this responsibility
distribution: knowledge is distributed among groups, genders and generations and kept in balance by their constantly recalibrating social balance; even ownership is distributed, as owners of something require the permission of "managers" to use it
protocol (as a Kaurna elder described it to Margaret Simons, The Meeting of the Waters, 129): respecting other people's relationships to knowledge; more generally, accepting that there are things you do not and cannot and need not know
If you wanted to add a grand Stannerian coda, you could say that the living out of this system is Aboriginal philosophy and metaphysics.

This is quite appealing in various ways - I see myself attracted to it for nostalgic, ecological and socially utopian reasons. But it is very different from the project of knowledge to which I am committed as a scholar and teacher. All knowledge should be available to all people, and efforts should be made to distribute it widely. Everyone should be taught to feel entitled to full knowledge about anything, and all of us should object to any effort to monopolize or restrict access, or, especially, to create dependence or exclusion by such restriction. True knowledge doesn't require authority, and is better maintained and expanded by a culture of critical questions and ongoing inquiry. Knowledge, and democracy, too, will flourish if all citizens exercise the freedom which this system of knowledge affords.

Of course this was the position of the conservative lawyers in the Kumarangk case! Shouldn't the moral of the story be that nobody is hurt when knowledge is shared? Why doesn't this settle it?

Ah, "settle," the word of the hour. Eve Tuck, the third of the alumni panelists at our Lang @ 25 discussion on the liberal arts, suggested that there's an affinity between the liberal arts and settler colonialism, but that a different kind of liberal arts might "teach the settler to be indigenous." I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. For it is in settler terms that I have been accustomed to think about what I do. Every field of knowledge (notice that we use land language for knowledge) can be yours if you work for it. A liberally educated person has broad horizons, can navigate the terrain of many fields, and is always looking for new knowledges to make her own. Sounds... like colonialism! Knowledge as theft!

So my impasse. Even if I somehow understand the Aboriginal knowledge system (I'm not saying I do), by what right am I entitled to share it? Do I or don't I teach about it as another territory my students might make their own through study, something they can "learn from," a study from which they can "take away" something of use to them? I'm still tangled up here, as you can see... but I don't want to leave it as a puzzle, a paradox. This isn't something to think through, but to do something about. Do what?

A playwright I've recently met wrestled with some similar questions in writing a (commissioned) play about a Native American figure famous in the region where he too grew up. I've only read about the play, but I think that part of what made it successful was his giving himself - his story, his (settler) family, his fears, his hopes - to it. He was able to incorporate the questions into his performance - and to offer his performance to Native American as well as settler audiences. Perhaps there's a way I could do something like this?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Popping bubbles

Today was the first day of training for the Fall seminar fellows (our first year program's peer advisers), and the very talented Z (a past seminar fellow) led us through a workshop on diversity. We began with "trigger words" - words which elicit an emotional or even a physical reaction in us (not only negative). Some of these were familiar stereotyped terms of abuse. Some are words of praise and love. The more interesting ones were words whose hidden judgmentalism wasn't obvious (hipster), or words which to some were virtues and to others terms of sanction (like ambitious and, interestingly, slutty). And then there were neologisms (trustafarian, fasian). The board filled and filled. (Later I added my first year program trigger word: retention.)

The next part of the exercise is called "Circles of My Multicultural Self." Participants write four "dimensions of their identity" in bubbles, recall times when it was a good thing to be so identified, or a painful thing, all culminating in a sentence which incorporates one of the identity words I am (a/an) ___ but I am NOT (a/an) ___. Not many got as far as the last (or were willing to share them), which was a pity, as that's the most interesting. (We did get I'm from the South but not conservative, I'm single but not lonely, I use drugs but I'm not irresponsible, and - twice! - I'm Jewish but not cheap.) People preferred to share their "bubble words," which Z had too generously allowed them to multiply at will. Some had a dozen or more bubble-words, and one had bubbles sprouting from bubbles. This was interesting in its own way, but let us avoid the issue of having to live with other people's judgments, with categories whose meaning you don't choose and whose applicability to you may be beyond your control. (Unsurprisingly, only one white participant cited "white," and she had been to a high school where white students were a minority.)

Only when I insisted we do the storytelling part did it get interesting, and serious. One student told of being "paralyzed" when a five-year-old pointed to her on the street and used a racial slur. The privileged fantasy of endless self-invention quickly evaporated.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Serving notice

My classes for the academic year finished today. “Exploring Religious Ethics” ended with student reflections on our intimate early-morning sessions, including one I’d like to find a way to put on a business card: “the class has lovingly served a slice of humble pie.” In the “Aboriginal Australia” class, however, the humble pie line was mine. More once I can find the words to explain.

A first attempt

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The refurbished and replanted east side of Washington Square Park is really close to being ready to open. Open it up already!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Lang itself

This is the best flyer I've seen at Lang. It's inspired perfection. Next time someone asks me where I teach, what we're about, I'll direct them to it.

Going out of business

One of my main anxieties in the Aboriginal Australia course, as you know, has been that I wasn't able to give the students unmediated contact with any aspect of the subject matter - something that seemed particularly problematic for an oral, highly personalized and localized culture. The semester's about to finish and I haven't been able to bring in a single Aboriginal person or even artifact, and, of course, field trips are out of the question. But today we were saved at the last minute by a grandmother from Yuendumu. Sort of, at least.

FD, a French anthropologist who has spent time at Yuendumu in Central Australia for a quarter century, came to visit class. (She was slated to visit last month, but my jury duty messed that up, and she generously rescheduled.) She lives and teaches in Connecticut, but has family in Yuendumu, too - it's classificatory kinship, of course, but it's still kinship if you live it, and she has and does. She was classified as someone's sister when she began her fieldwork in 1982, visits every year, and skypes with her Yuendumu relations three times a week! When she spent six weeks in Yuendumu in 2009, she stepped into the grandmother's role in a house with twenty-eight people under twenty-five (cooking, buying petrol, driving people places, etc., she explained); when she had to leave, they asked if she'd stay if they paid her. For she's the last grandmother left.

At the same time that we finally had a living connection to an Aboriginal society, we were confronted with the reality of its dying. FD showed us a film (from 1991) with a number of famous painters we had encountered earlier in the course. All but three have passed away, she told us. Her book (from 2001) describes the world of Warlpiri "big businesswomen" - female ritual leaders who had played an important role in the ceremonial life of Yuendumu. They've all passed on, too, we learned. "And the next generation of businesswomen?" I asked. There is none, was the reply. "Who maintains the dreaming segments?" I asked, showing off my lingo. Nobody; the place of ceremonies has been taken, and only imperfectly, by acrylic painting.

The situation isn't quite as dire everywhere as it is in Yuendumu. But this confirmation that the transmission of culture has been so grievously disabled by sedentarization took our breath away. The figures described in FD's book were the most fully alive of any we encountered, and now we learn that they are no more - and their way of life, too.

I'm devastated. I should have known, of course, from my research. But I couldn't, didn't want to believe.

Monday, May 09, 2011


The good folks at STA found me a way to stop in Japan on the way to Australia. It's different airlines for each leg - always cool ones (like JetStar from Tokyo to Melbourne via Gold Coast!) - and it minimizes my carbon footprint (even more if you could see it on a sphere, and yes, I've already purchased carbon offset for its 22,000 miles). While cheaper than the alternatives it's still my most expensive flying travel ever. I can always hope the US$ rises a little in value before I set forth on 27 July!

Sunday, May 08, 2011


You know how I love maps, so you can imagine my excitement on finding an image of this 1944 map showing the meeting of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at Cairo, Illinois in the "Week in Review" today. It reconstructs twenty stages of river meanders over thousands of years.