Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Friday, May 27, 2011
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Monday, May 23, 2011
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
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.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
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
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
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.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
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.
Monday, May 16, 2011
'PRESENCE' 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 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
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.
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
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
A first attempt
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
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.