30 April 2006

Chicago, Chicago

So here I am, in Chicago. it did rain today, which ruled out the healthy bike ride. I instead rode the elliptical machine in the hotel gym, which was so advanced as to utterly take away any pain whatsoever from working out. I'm not sure I even did it. perhaps I just got a massage instead. who knows?

then, of course, due to Ruth's suggestions, I could not resist the matinée feature at The Music Box, Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession of 1954. it was fabulous. sure, no Imitation of Life, which I find to be the better film, but you cannot beat Rock Hudson as the playboy-turned-philanthropist-turned-brain surgeon-turned... you get the idea. actually you probably don't, which is what is so great about this film. it's convoluted and improbable. but the homoerotic subtext (both gay and lesbian) is amazing, and it has some laugh out loud moments, right from the start. I may write a short review when I return to the UK.

Chicago is a lovely town, enhanced immeasurably by my hotel location at the Burnham, in the historic Reliance building, located on the same block as (wait for it): Nordstrom Rack, H&M, Old Navy, Marshall Fields (the original store people--this is Chicago), and of course, Starbucks. double-tall breve latte.

27 April 2006

faith's constitutive outside

I have something percolating that feels very important in response to the discussion below and over at FFB regarding secularism, faith, ID, and the rest. however, with all percolating things, there's a risk of increased contamination from the very method of brewing and frankly, a french press is just a better method of preparing thoughts. however, I grind on, feeling that this is important.

faith, it seems to me, has nothing necessarily to do with God. that is, my first point is that the discussion is waaay too focused on the Mediterranean religious episteme, which in turn is then used to filter other epistemes such as 'polytheism' (aka Hinduism, a 'religion' which is a recent historical construction joining together a whole raft of belief systems which, in some forms, are not even polytheistic). this is a problem because it assumes a unity to faith that doesn't exist, and it reads all religions as fundamentally similar, which they are not.

one can believe and have faith in an understanding of the universe as somehow interconnected, and that faith might be grounded in concepts that arise out of physics, for example, perhaps in connection with broadly Buddhist tenets. one can have faith in a conception of power as operating not through people wielding it but rather through power relations. unlike the current narrow reading of the Mediterranean religions, one can believe in multiple things from ostensibly different religious traditions (in Japan: Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity) at the same time. can these beliefs be observed and proven? yes and no. which brings me to my second point.

to figure out what faith is, it must be defined over against what it is not, or non-faith. atheism might be described as a faith that there is(are) no deity(ties). there's no proof that God doesn't exist (although I admit proving a negative is nigh impossible). but this leads me to my point, I think. which is that the rationale for deciding what faith is stems from a very empiricist, Enlightenment episteme of 'proof' and 'observation'--one at odds, fundamentally, with 'faith' itself. or, to put it another way, a central faith that grounds our current Western episteme.

faith is often reinforced by what those who operate through faith observe in the world every day.

If there's anything that exhibits Derrida's point about nothing being outside the text, it's faith, it seems to me: the so-called non-faith space merely produces faith and is itself susceptible to being articulated as a faith.

all that said, I think that secularism isn't about faith. it's about politics. (and yes, I know I know--politics is everywhere too. bear with me). a secular state is different from a religious one. and secularism is important, not because it is the opposite of faith but because it provides protection for faith. religious states, ironically enough, do not. just as one should articulate a difference between religion and belief, one should articulate a difference between secularism and anti-religion.

can one be dogmatically secularist? yes. is that bad? I don't think so. as much as the continental philosophers have been trying to reveal to us the enlightenment episteme we operate in, helpfully pointing out its problems, what that helps us with is an understanding of how power operates, how politics works, how discourse shapes our lives. (and I realise that those phrases are utterly not Derridean, but I'm actually trying to communicate here, so cut me some slack.)

Intelligent design is a phrase constructed for political ends and it operates within a certain political realm to produce ends that resemble a religious state.

If your faith involves the belief that (a) there was an 'original' (not 'originary') creation moment of any kind and (b) there is an entity behind said creation, then ID might vaguely describe your belief. But once you want everyone to believe your belief, and you want the state to propagate said belief, you've entered into the realm of a religious state. I find that path one that closes off faith, eliminating options rather than opening them up.

science isn't anti-religion, as most scientists have been trying to tell us for eons. and science isn't monolithic or unchanging or true in any fundamental sense. but it is the episteme that we in the western world have agreed upon, and through that episteme we have managed, more or less, to allow other belief systems to flourish and grow. I think we should teach our students to doubt more, to formulate good questions, to see the problems behind the so-called answers, not give them packaged answers disguised as truth.

my three minutes are up. plunge the pot.

25 April 2006

could not be cooler

this is a link post, because my friend Rob (Pomona '05, natch) just posted some amazing posts to his blog. he's on a scholarly tour of the world in search of throat-singing, multi-harmonic vocal stuff, and the like, and his most recent stop is in Sardenia to witness the unbelievable singing that monks there do for Easter. the four voices produce a fifth, 'virtual' voice above them. harmonics, math, religion, otherworldliness, ritual, candlelight, sound, ambience (in its purest sense). this completely blew me away. and I'm a visual person. check it out: link.

one day in Chicago

so. if you had one day, a Sunday, this Sunday, in Chicago--what would you do? thoughts, Chicago types out there?

22 April 2006

flood and flood

I've been following salon's series on global warming and the effect of rising waters on the world--the current effects that we can observe and the future effects as well. entire countries disappearing under the water in the pacific, for example. I highly recommend these pieces; they give you an insight into various water-proximate cultures and the different ways they're dealing with a problem largely forced on them by those kicking up almost a quarter of the world's greenhouse gasses (that'd be the US, for those just joining us).

I find a word problematic though, and suggest that we need something new in order to describe the problem facing these communities. By calling this problem a 'flood' it makes it feel like a quick, one-time, singular natural disaster (and yes, floods are rarely wholly 'natural' disasters). it invites comparisons between the levees breaking in NO and a severe snowmelt one year in the Rockies that tragically kills some kayakers down-river. the former is the result of long-term bureaucratic neglect and corruption; the latter may have something to do with global warming or it might just be a heavy snowmelt year. it suggests to readers that if faced with a climate-change, decades-long level 'flood' that slowly and inexorably changed the salinity of the water in your supply, moved the ecosystem around, and shifted your problems from one set to another entirely different set, one should, as in the horror movies, just 'get out'.

and so I suggest you read the article linked above on Bangladesh's southwestern region because it outlines the huge problems facing this region on all levels, from climate to culture, and the difficulties of trying to suggest easy, quick, simple solutions (and let's face it: getting out is a two-word, easily stated solution which carries an ease-factor inversely proportionate to the ease of said two-word statement) in a region that can easily see and identify the immediate problems but like all of us has some difficulty figuring out what to do about it.

adaptability seems to me to be the keyword of the article, and one that defies the quick-fix approach that a singular natural disaster word like 'flood' asks for in return. investigating new ways of relating to the water now that the old ways are no longer possible. trying things in new places that worked elsewhere, where they were faced with similar problems. working within the language (Bengali as well as the agricultural language of regional farming) that those living in SW Bangladesh know well rather than bringing in 'Western Science' and 'Developed Nation Englightenment' into smart, hardworking, subtle-thinking people's homes.

Bangladesh has already seen arsenic-induced deaths due to the overdeployment by western aid organizations of tube wells to provide 'clean water' to 'backwards' rural villages. a huge education campaign was put in place with the best intentions to get folks to stop drinking the stale, cholera-causing water in algae-covered ponds in exchange for trusting the tubewell. now a different education project has to be put in place.

in most cases, I know, we fail to learn from earlier historical missteps. but I ask meekly: instead of using technology to fix things why not adapt what folks already do (see: Green Revolution, failures of)? why not work with them instead of calling them stupid for not 'getting out' while they can (see some of the letters in response to the article)? and let's not forget: utter lack of access to education does not mean stupid. it means poor. and educated, let's face it, does not necessarily mean smart.

irony is dead

one of our friends in grad school used to say this a lot. he meant, I think, not that irony wasn't effective or interesting, but that very vew people could identify what irony is anymore. this view coincided with Alanis Morisette's song 'Ironic' which, perhaps, if you give Alanis a whole lot of credit, and I mean a whole lot, is a meta-ironic comment itself, as the lyrics ironically contain no irony. just a lot of similes. irony is dead.

one is therefore extremely careful in the use of 'irony' and the word 'ironic' to describe things, as it's one of those words (like 'literally') which is inappropriately used, sometimes to hilarious result. rain on your wedding day isn't ironic. it's inconvenient and wet, perhaps, but it happens. can rain be ironic? I'm not sure. perhaps readers can construct a scenario in which rain on your wedding day might be ironic, but it would involve an entire storytelling verse prior to the chorus that explains the context for said irony.

all that to lead up to a BBC story about India's program to alleviate poverty, in which it pays folks minimum wage and guarantees 100 days work per year for each rural household. this works in some places and is running into corruption in other places. quote:
Mr Das is not the only person worried about implementation. One of the ironies is that India's poorest states which need the scheme most are generally its worst governed too.

is that irony? or just common sense? fill me in. am I wrong? is it ironic? or just tragically expected and normal?

20 April 2006

Recognising There's a Problem
or perhaps not

As is his way, TMcD's comments have been stuck in my head for the past couple of days. I feel I owe our recent exchange a fuller response, both because the topic is far from exhausted and because TMcD was kind enough to give me the nicest compliment I can ever recall receiving when he called me (again, in previous comments) 'the rational edge of the postie left'. Hell, I can't think of higher aspirations then just trying to live up to that description! Can I put it on my CV?

Anyway, TMcD called me out for my casual dismissal of ID. First, let me say that I do not wish to be one of those non-believers who plays the dogmatist when it comes to so-called secularism. Indeed, on this front I follow Connolly's recent work: the line between religious faith and secular belief is thin and fuzzy. We are all animated by some sort of 'existential faith', and the hard line defence of 'secularism' is just a dogmatic form of faith rather than a reasonable one. OK, put all that aside, because I want to get at the really interesting bit.

TMcD says:
[1]How, for example, could any structure--even one we, creatures of nature that we are, superimpose--come from shere abject randomness, or how sense out of nonsense? [...]
[2]human life is structured in a whole variety of ways, not just intellectual or even aesthetic, but "moral" as well, and these things cannot all be simply reduced to power relations.
[3]I know that you, like a lot of others with "post-mod" sympathies accept this, but often have trouble acknowledging it or explaining it. I'm thinking, in particular, about Rorty's weak attempt to chalk it all up to "the kind of people we modern liberals ARE", or maybe Derrida's contradictory (and absurd) claim that "justice is not deconstructable."
First let me do some ground clearing. I agree with #2, and embrace it wholeheartedly. As to #3, I contend (given my previous point) that I have no problem acknowledging it, but that 'explaining' it may be what we are all striving to do (or avoid doing) and which no one has much claim to having done perfectly. Next, let me say to anyone who wants to throw a 'anti-Rorty' party: please invite me!

So that just leaves us with the dismissal of Derrida and the initial claim - you see, my strategy with TMcD is just to agree with him until he and everyone else is bored with my post. Taking the last, first, I want to defend Derrida a bit. I don't think 'justice is not deconstructable' is absurd; I also don't think it's a 'claim'. That is, it's not a philosophical proposition that Derrida thinks we could prove or disprove. So, perhaps it is 'absurd' but that's very much for a reason. It's an effort to get at precisely what tmcd points to with #1: that things like morality, like the idea of justice, cannot merely be explained away or refuted. They have a quasi-transcendental status with which we must concern ourselves, but that we cannot merely deny. I take JD's sentence about justice to point to a certain ontology of immanence, but also to be precisely a rejection of nihilism.

And that gets me to the most important point, Tmcd's first point, which comes in the form of a question. And here's the thing: when I read it, when I hear it, I don't think the question has the 'hook', for lack of a better word, that tmcd expects it to. Perhaps I should be, but I'm not really all that bothered about how sense emerges from nonsense. Indeed, I think that's just how sense emerges – from nonsense. We produce meaning in the world, we read it into a world without meaning, and as Paul tells us continually, we construct narratives that give that meaning a place to rest, and a place from which to emerge. Structure emerges out of randomness (see Paul's many iPod posts); order comes from chaos. I'm OK with that.

I had a consistent argument with a good friend in graduate school, who always took the Habermas as sociologist critique of Foucault, and it always boiled down to this question: 'but how can Foucault explain the emergence and existence of society, of structures of human organisation'? And to this day, I've never fully grasped the question in the depth with which he meant it, since I just don't see the need to explain those things: society exists right outside my window, and there are all sorts of more important questions than how it came to be. Structures of meaning and rationality - and morality and justice - also exist in the world. Do we need a transcendent structure (order, God, reason) to explain them? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

16 April 2006

war on easter

happy easter all, and may your pagan-turned-Christian appropriated holiday be joyous, as nature itself arises from its long winter grave. ah yes. spring festivals. gotta love 'em.

the only other place (aside from where we currently live) where we have experienced a true and complete shut-down of commerce for Christian holidays such as easter was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Fredericksburg and St. Mary's County, Maryland. we were surprised the first year, of course. I can't remember what we needed to go out to buy, but the grocery stores, the BigK, the dollar stores--everything of commercial importance in St. Mary's County was shut on easter sunday. (we didn't yet have a Walmart at that time, I don't think. just the BigK. it had, however, changed its livery such that it was BigK and not KMart. so that's progress, I suppose.) on that dark easter of '99, KMart let the family down, particularly after the oft-repeated family story involving my grandfather, July 4th, the Omaha KMart and the phrase: 'open for your bicentennial shopping pleasure'.

it is the same here, as I discovered on Good Friday when attempting to purchase a thermometer and paracetamol for Sam. but, unlike our experience in southern Maryland or in Fredericksburg a year later, people take these holidays seriously here. they have big dinners and eat lamb and get dressed up. they debate the old questions: was someone really watching all night before they rolled the stone away from the cave opening? maybe they dozed off? if Jesus left the shroud behind wouldn't that mean he rose up to heaven in his 'birthday suit'? I'll let you know what other hot topics we discuss over easter supper this afternoon.

and remember, this is the land of the Druids. we're allowed to have a little good-ol' pagan fun-poking at the myths of others.

15 April 2006

'The Question to Everyone's Answer...'

Yes, my title is a Steve Miller Lyric. I defend my use of it: no matter how much cheesier Steve Miller grows to be at time goes by, he still had some great lines.

However, I use the line as the connector to Paul's recent post.
Paul has been discussing both statistics (shocker) and 'the zone'. I have one brief comment about the latter, and that is to say that the question of the 'the zone' really should be dissociated from questions of statistics and statistically anomolies. There is the question of 'being hot' or 'being due' that can be sorted out through statistics, but being 'in the zone' should not be reduced to being 'on a streak'. 'The zone' ought to refer not just to doing 'better than the odds' would predict beforehand, but to a mental and physical state as well. It's a state in which one is not only excelling in one's performance, but one knows that one will excel, and one also has the sense that this success is coming from...somewhere else.

But what I really wanted to get at was Paul's conclusion, where he asks the question to my answer:
So what is it about things that, while they have in fact occurred, somehow seem unlikely to have occurred? It's the only thing that's keeping the Creationists going at this point, for instance. It seems to point to a hole in our model of history, of how events transpire, of how we got from there to here.
It does point to a hole in our model of history. Or, put otherwise, it reveals the progressivism and linearity that underlies that model. We both demand and presume a sort of linear causality in which all events are explained by their source causes. The question 'what are the odds of that' - the question Paul hammers on so relentlessly - implies that most of the time 'the odds of that' should not be unreasonable, that any event should have a simple, causal explanation. But that's not how history works; it's not how time works; it's not how the world works. We only get those sorts of explanations post hoc. The process of history itself, as its going on, is filled with randomness. It's our resistance to that randmoness that makes 'intelligent design' sound like something other than a sham to many Americans (according to my students, it still sounds only like a sham to the Brits).

14 April 2006

Paracetamol Rules!

This time I have a much better excuse for my recent radio silence: I've been in bed, sleeping 18 hours a day and attempting to cough up a lung during the other 6. The 'cold' I acquired in the states seems to have transmogrified into something much more nasty during the 8 hours breathing recirculated air on the plane.

It turns out, even being sick is different in another country. First, I had to learn that 37 degrees is 'normal' temperature and thus my 38.3 temp was a fairly serious fever. But the good news arrives under the moniker 'Paracetamol': it's an over-the-counter pain and fever relief medication, but it's some serious stuff. After two of them my 38.3 temp dropped down to 36.3; even better, I no longer longed for my life to end.

13 April 2006

celebrity culture

readers of recent posts will already know that I am a fan of the musical, what with the direct Mary Poppins references. and thus you likely assume that I not only have seen but know most of the lyrics to other similar filmic events, such as Oklahoma!, The Music Man, and the classic, The Sound of Music.

If memory serves, I believe my librarian mother 'permanently borrowed' the two-VHS tape Sound of Music from her library for, say, almost my entire childhood. my sisters and I watched it incessantly. I was, natch, Liesl, for I was the oldest and she is the oldest. plus she gets to sing the 'I am sixteen' song with the guy. we would sing all of the do-re-mi parts on car-trips, including the little round the Von Trapps do while riding in a horse-drawn carriage (if memory serves again).

all of this gives me legitimacy to argue what I am about to argue.

in the British press, the cult of celebrity has a bit of a different flavour than in the US press. Big Brother is a very popular show here, and they have done a 'Celebrity Big Brother' in which they gathered b-list celebrities together into the house and planted a non-celebrity in their midst. if she could make it through the show and 'pass' as a celebrity, she would win. and well, she did, and now she has her own show and she's a celebrity because of being a celebrity. this is nothing new. this phenomenon has been written about by many cultural commentators, from the moment the Milli Vanilli scandal broke (and what a sad day that was, my friends). (ps: how much do you love that there's a wikipedia entry for Milli Vanilli? and this fab article I found too...)

in the UK, this phenomenon of 'get on TV = celebrity' is, I think, a bit more pressing. because the country is small, and so there are simply fewer people around to get on TV, and as a result there's a pretty decent chance you will get on TV one way or another. in the US, I sense that one must go out of one's way to get on TV. one must show up for the auditions for Big Brother, or whatever reality show MTV has going on this week, or Survivor, or whatever, and actually compete for the chance to become a celebrity. I am not arguing that you need more talent in the US versus the UK. that seems about the same in both cases. it's just that the pool is so much smaller here. there's a palpable sense that hey, it could really really be you. whereas with 295 million plus others out there (plus the 10-12 million illegal immigrants, right?), there's just not much chance it could be you in the US.

so, when the story broke last week about kids lining up for hours to audition for the West End revival of the Sound of Music, it surprised me that the story was not about these kids going for their dreams (although that was in there) it was about the cult of celebrity. now, granted, the casting for Maria is taking place via a reality show, sure. but it seems like there's a difference between shooting for celebrity and getting to perform in one of the best musical roles for kids out there, in a high-profile production that will give you amazing experience and perhaps help build your career into an actual career. these kids, it seemed to me, weren't signing up to be instant celebs. it's a stage production, for god's sake. everyone knows that stage 'stars' are only stars to theatre folk, and not the wider public. these kids were trying to get work in a fabulous production where they actually get to work with Andrew Lloyd Weber himself, a dubious honor, but none-the-less.

and I found it insulting to the kids that for the press, this was about insta-celebrity in the same way that Big Brother chick was about insta-celebrity. she looks like Paris Hilton and carries herself in a certain way and is particularly savvy. these are qualities that cannot be underestimated. but can she carry a tune? belt it out 3 nights/week? dance? act? get over stage fright? memorize lines? maybe she can. but that's not what got her insta-celebrity status. and that's not what these kids are going for. they want to perform, to pursue an art. some of them might actually make some art someday. that's different, it seems to me, than sitting up straight, wearing the right sunglasses, and applying lipgloss correctly. and to equate them demeans the craft of acting and the long tradition of musical theatre.

and I'm off the box.

next: Oh........! klahoma where the wind comes sweepin down the plain (oklahoma)

10 April 2006

spell it out

I consider myself to be an excellent speller. perhaps this comes from the part of my brain that is also a visual learner or engages with space in particular ways. I don't know. nor do I particularly care. but I can look at a word and tell you if it's spelled correctly, even if I've only seen it once. I read prodigiously as a child, which apparently led to glasses at a young age which of course led to Lasik at a less-young age. so I have a big vocabulary too, and one which is highly inflected by what I call 'words of the commonwealth' like scone (before Starbucks had them people, not that they do now, but that's another post), rubbish, lift, lorry, and my favorite, post-prandial. this is the word that made me realize, when it appeared on my SAT, that the SAT was fundamentally and utterly classist and amazingly white. for only I, among all my well-off Catholic school comrades in the room, could possibly know this word, for having heard it nigh every evening as my father sidled to the liquor cabinet for what he called a 'post-prandial snort' or something like that. crazy commonwealth folk.

but I digress (talking about spelling always does that, no?). I was discussing spelling. the sole gap in my spelling ability has always been words like surprise, realize, analyze, and the like. for I began my childhood in said commonwealth, first in Australia and then in Canada. and I learned to spell during those formative Canadian years (how I love thee, O Canada...). upon moving to the US at age 8, there were several things I had to get used to. these were major, life-changing, scarring things and I will now reveal them to you:

  1. Sesame Street was in Spanish, not French. it's just that I thought the world was one way, and then it turns out it's another way. and I missed the french.
  2. chips had now transmogrified into crisps. the word 'french fry' seemed utterly silly and long-winded in the face of this change. (I got in a physical fight about this one, by the way. there was screaming involved and it was very crucial that chips were chips, as in 'fish-and-' and not these packaged Lays things.)
  3. people south of the border shortened their spellings. colour was now color; favourite was now favorite. at least they kept the crucial distinction between 'for' and 'four', although as my mother constantly reminded me, folks in the US (and not her children) pronounced the former word 'fer'. perhaps this was a way of getting around the confusion. I don't know.
so it is now that I have returned not to the commonwealth but indeed to a small principality, Wales, directly linked to the seat of empire, England, that I have to adjust back to my Canadian spelling roots. surprise, I think, stays the same (that's the confusing one). realise, analyse, favourite, colour...I haven't made the mental switch yet. it'll come. at least, thanks to my Anglophone mother and my Australian father, I can speak the language.

08 April 2006

for your consideration

'White Box/Black Box: The Modernist Iconography of Art Historical Powerpoint Presentations'

Since the 1960s Greenbergian revolution that (re?)focused art historical attention on the object and (in)famously on 'art for art's sake', museums have been working through and against the 'white box' phenomenon, wherein objects are literally put on a pedestal, spot-lit, and surrounded by white, unmarked (although not, as the critics would have it, non-signifying) space. This world of the white box has seen numerous critiques both in text and in museum re-installations, some more successful than others, and most of which focused on the problem inherent in extracting art from its contexts--of making, ritual, or history--through this white space that sought to eliminate everything aside from the phallic pedestal with its concomitant white-male-straight-dominant organizing episteme. [inhale here]

This paper seeks to interrogate the new white space of art history: the powerpoint. Oft critiqued in other disciplines as a veil of text and flashy graphics behind which social scientists or hard scientists hide in a futile attempt to mask inadequacies in rhetorical presentation, this art historical case is of a different character. For, long dependent on images in the form of the dual and often dueling slide projectors, art historians are now faced with a new technology through which to share knowledge. Seeing the fallacy in merely repeating the dual-slide paradigm in digital form, most art historians have now shifted not to more images but rather to single images, one per slide. The importance of this shift is allied to its visual presentation against, most commonly, the white space of the powerpoint default slide, headed or occasionally footed by a caption, generally again in the default Helvetica or Arial 48-point font. While some presenters (including the current author) opt for a black background in order to approximate the darkness of the slide lecture theatre, this white-box, single image space is now widespread and, intriguingly, reasserts a modernist, Greenbergian voice in an art history seemingly past such backward notions. The critique of this has not yet begun. This paper seeks to begin it, and mount a critique of art history's new modernist whiteness out of its recent 'powerpointed turn' with the view to sound the clarion call of danger that this turn represents, not because of the medium but because of the narrowness of its current usage.

aren't conferences fun?.....

AAH and Others

I am blogging now (although not able to post this) from the grand hall that centers the AAH conference. On the one hand, it's a big conference, with I suppose several hundred people attending. On the other, it's small compared to the major national conference in the US, CAA. It also is very much unlike CAA in its dearth of non-western papers or panels. Certainly no panels entirely made up of non-western scholars or focused on a particular region, something you have all the time at CAA. It indicates a crucial difference between the disciplinary shape of art history in the UK and its shape in the US.

This difference I think stems from the rise of Area Studies in the US in the 1960s as government funding to study the Other (primarily the USSR, but other regions were of course crucial in this, Central/South America, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa) encouraged the study of these regions not just at the graduate level but also at the undergraduate level, in concert with the movement in support of a multicultural ideal in the 1980s. That area studies-multiculti convergence means that in the US we have a tokenism of Otherness, with each art/art history department feeling a need to have a representative of the 'non' as I call it, so as to appear at least nominally balanced in the way art history is taught. Often this situation masks the reality that western folks continue to teach as they teach and simply tack on some classes taught by the nons into their curriculum. I, by the way, am the result of such a curriculum, in which we were required to take one 'non' and I did and here I am. So I can't entirely knock it.

What it means now is that we have this relatively large group of scholars who specialize in the extra-Euro-American world (there's no good phrase. sue me.) teaching at small institutions in the US and giving papers at big conferences where they huddle together in their regional quonset huts, talking only to one another. Sometimes this is breached, and done successfully, but often it is not.

So the atomizing (no, not in terms of perfume spray! really, people. come on now. stick with me) of the discipline in the US is not matched in the UK. They kind of stuck with the whole Europe = Good thing and why should we start teaching something else anyway, and we're not qualified, and what about the costs of library resources and... This is an approach which has a lot of merit (cite: John Seery's essay in his book America Goes to College regarding the import of the Great Books program at Stanford) and I think fails to succumb to the politically-correct tokenism of multiculti approaches that have led to the atomization of which I speak. (can you tell I've been at a conference for the past few days?)

As a result, the UK seems to be a space of great opportunity to rethink the way Asian art, for example, might find a place for itself within the academy. Rather than as a tangential add-on, it might be something else. Not sure what that is yet. I'll report more later. Must dash to hear a talk on Shirin Neshat blah blah.

05 April 2006

Where Have I Been?

Right now I'm in the Portland airport (they have absolutely free wireless), waiting for a flight to Houston, which, by the way, is not a very good way to get to Chicago, my destination. Oh, and thanks either to Mrs. Transient Gadfly or to the othwerwise wonderful yoga classes we went to, I'm rather sick.

But where have I been over the past 10 days, with no blogging? Hard to say, really. I've been travelling all over the northwest: doing recruitment for Swansea and giving talks about Butler, so I have been busy. But the not blogging explanation would have to run deeper than that. For one thing, every time I checked SecondAmericano, Rebecca had blogged up a storm. And she tends to inhabit a slightly different blogging voice than I. Perhaps that's the issue: I'm not sure what my 'blogging voice' is. I'm not quite as autobiographical as Rebecca, and sometimes I think I aspire to the wisdom of OddsAreOne or the politically savvy nature of FreedomFromBlog – but those aren't quite me either.

For now, my voice is very deep and gravelly from the chest cold, so I'll sign off now having said close to nothing (and that's what I've felt like I've had to say over the past week or so) other than a couple of updates.
  • people have more interest in Judith Butler's political theory than I suspected
  • top private liberal arts colleges truly are amazing places to live and learn
  • human beings are particularly ill-suited to travel on airplanes; we weren't made to live in one place and have friendes and family in other places, thousands and thousands of miles (and oceans) away.
  • Apple has surprised even me with the announcement of Boot Camp

04 April 2006

Regent's Park is mine, by the way

so each time I come to London I remember how often I've been here and how much of the city I know, I walk, I have lived. it's odd, because when I'm away it's not like I long for the place, but when I'm here it's all about the neighborhoods I know and the paths Sam and I walked--the route from our tiny studio flat that summer in Soho to the British Library (new location near St. Pancras) and back. the Hampstead Heath where I lived for a few weeks. the walk from Victoria by Buckingham Palace through Trafalgar and Covent Garden, down Neals Yard through via the British Museum and Russell Square to the British Library. the run Sam and I did up from Soho past the BBC tower to Regent's Park and around and back. the run I've done the last few times I've been here along Euston road to Regents park around and back. Regents park has blossoms too, but without the pesky tourists and DC-ites worshipping them. (don't get me wrong, love the cherry blossoms. it's just really? do we have to make it a tourist trap? can't it just be, well, spring?) it has what I call in my head 'lovers' lane' because there are always two or three teen couples there hanging out, heads together, one sitting in the other's lap. the mud-pack track that runners use around the edge of the park. all this. and thus, Regents park is mine.

can't we own things through our memories of them? I think that's fair. we'll have to do some rewriting of Locke, but hey, he was due for one...

03 April 2006

calling in at London

I'm heading off to London tomorrow and then on to Leeds the following day to attend the big national art history conference for the UK. it occurred to me as I walked home this afternoon that it's pretty cool to be able to say that: I'm off to London tomorrow. almost as exciting as hopping the amtrak to New York from Fredericksburg, which I used to do occasionally. but there's something more ancient, more exotic about London. even the syllables feel right, not all twisted and emaciated and hard to get your mouth around like "New York" but round and full and deep. London. Ellowen Deeowen, as Rushdie would say.

02 April 2006

Imitation of Life 1959, Douglas Sirk, dir.

Oh Steve...You're so...so good for what ails me!

on the recommendation of a colleague here in Wales, I have been on the lookout for Douglas Sirk's films, as their visual sensibility intersects with some of the research I've been doing on 1950s and 1960s Bollywood films. Yash Chopra, one of the directors I've been looking at, has cited Sirk as a reference point for his interiors and shots, and both directors show us a vision of what it means to be modern in the 1950s and 60s.

so last night I watched Imitation of Life which I highly recommend that everyone watch for the following reasons:

  • we all need melodrama in our lives, and the film not only delivers it but critiques that need incessantly. the main character, Lora Meredith, played by a gorgeous Lana Turner, is an aspiring actress, and her daughter, lovers, and friends all remind her constantly that she needs to 'stop acting' 'stop playing the martyr' and in general to stop being such a drama queen. I love it.

  • ambition: good or bad? Lora is a modern woman. a widow, she lives in a 'cold-water apartment' in New York with her daughter. she has a dream. but it's more that she is driven: dreams are things we can't attain, and there's no wallowing here in the dream. Lora just goes out and gets it. And, guess what! she doesn't compromise her principles to do so, rebutting the advances of a lecherous agent and standing up to the playwright when his scene isn't well written. this gets her her first big break, which then leads to her meteoric rise. which leads to:

  • principles: good or bad? so she sticks to her principles and follows her ambition and yet she is unsatisfied. something is missing. she doesn't see her daughter grow up. she rejects the man she loves because marriage means not following her career path. she is unhappy.

  • but wait! I forgot! race relations! yes, Lora takes in a black woman and her light-skinned child and they live in the walkup apartment together, later moving into a big house. Annie facilitates Lora's rise (much as a wife might in a heterosexual relationship--oops! did I imply some sort of relationship there? hm.) by working behind the scenes, posing as her maid, answering door and phone, raising her child. it's almost like she is the live-in housekeeper, almost like she is the wife role that Lora has rejected.

  • it's almost like life: the film is of course, melodramatic in the proper sense of the term: expressionistic shots, lovely framing through the angular stair-rails at the oh-so-modern late-50s suburban estate, nice chiaroscuro at all the right moments and to bathe the four women (two daughters, Annie, and Lora) in wonderful soft light (an aside: i don't think we ever see any of the men's faces in light, or barely at all. it's amazing that we even recognize them at the end of the film). but what's great about it is that in its imitation of life, it reveals to us the problems of life itself, it opens up the deeper questions of 'passing' as white in a racist world, of acknowledging who you are, of the subtleties of racism among friends, of balancing family and career, of figuring out what it is you truly want, not what it is you thought you wanted. life lessons. and Lana Turner. what could be better?

01 April 2006

piles of bronze cowdung cakes

the big deal this week in Welsh art circles was the announcement of the Artes Mundi prize, a £40,000 award given to one artist selected out of seven international finalists. this thursday and friday a symposium involved all seven (or actually eight, as one of the chosen artists is in fact a team of two) artists talking about their work and shmoozing with the local art folks and some not-so-local art folks.

it turns out that despite my location on the periphery in Wales, where one asks every day: hey, where's the Indian art? what kind of South Asian culture do you guys think you have here? what's going on?! despite all of this, in fact I've been lucky enough to meet and talk with several South Asian artists in the short 6 months since we moved. more than I met in State College, I can say. in February I interviewed two visiting Pakistani artists at the Swansea Print workshop, here as part of a large-scale exchange project in conjunction with the UK's Festival of Muslim Cultures. And this week, Subodh Gupta, one of the finalists for the Artes Mundi prize, was in Swansea to talk about his work. amazing.

unfortunately Subodh didn't win the prize, but it's still a huge honor to get selected, and the show at Cardiff runs until May. So I must get over there and see his work. he does these wonderful installations with stainless steel crockery that I find filled with humor as well as deeper statements about class, food, ritual, and the rest. Deepak Ananth, an independent curator and one of the two people on the selection committee for the show, interviewed Subodh and in his opening comments suggested that we have shifted from a question of East versus West to one of Rural versus Urban, at least when it comes to contemporary Indian art. I'm not sure this is true. Or at least, I'm not sure that the earlier generations (before Subodh's) in India weren't also dealing with the rural-urban issue. and in many ways, rural-urban is a cipher for modernization, a move away from what is idealized as the location of familial roots and ritual anchoring to a baseless, shifting, multifarious, westernized city.

Subodh uses cow dung in many of his works, although it's becoming less prevalent in his more recent pieces as he shifts to the kitchen implements. the resonance of the cow (holy, life-giver, milk-giver, mundane) and the cow dung (fuel, village, high-value, antiseptic/cleansing, women's work, renewable resource) flow through all of Subodh's work, whether it's his bicycle-with-milk containers (titled 'Cow') or his basket of cow dung patties in bronze. so there is something of the rural-urban there. but I wonder if that emphasizes too much the potential of his perfect VH1 story: born in a small village in rural Bihar, he took on the big city galleries and won!

can he ever leave the village? will the art critics ever let him? hm.