Sunday, August 29, 2010

Anxieties of the Day

House fire, Lyme's disease, car accident, total professional failure.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Some stuff I'd like to blog about

El Bulli

Asterios Polyp

Design Tiennial at the Cooper Hewitt

Maybe more on Chabon and/or Franzen



Wednesday, June 27, 2007

O's Make Me Happy (Finally)

When your team really sucks, you have only one joy in your baseball life. When the Mighty O's take a series win from the evil Yankees, thus totally knocking the pinstripes on their useless, stuck up, overpaid, self-righteous asses, well

that's bliss.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Maitland and Kantorowicz

I went back and looked at the Maitland essays on the corporation sole that helped inspire The King's Two Bodies. I have to say, they do not seem to me to be Maitland at his best, although one can admittedly be a little more critical of the essays when one is holding Kantorowicz in the other hand. Still, the essays are interesting, and as good a way I know of engaging the chapters we've both tackled.

Maitland's problem with the corporation sole is that he thinks it's useless in the case of parsons, and dangerous in the case of monarchs. To make matters worse, the Victorian era appears to have seen a proliferation of the form (the postmaster was a corporation sole). This last aggravation seems to have so prickled Maitland that he abandons his usual historical sensibilities and goes for the legal jugular.

For parsons, Maitland argues that it would work just as well to consider them to be part of a larger corporation – that of the church. The notion of corporation sole seems confused to Maitland – does it refer to an actual or a fictional person? – and he sees no additional legal benefits.

Maitland is justly famous for his work on legal history, particularly his capacity to elucidate archaic concepts. But his historical instincts failed him here. In his effort to discredit the idea, it seems to me his legal arguments may be valid but he is overlooking some of the work the idea might do. Writing in the 1890's, Maitland probably had few experiences of great schisms or church closings. Nowadays, however, the events are common. I'm thinking of the closing of parochial schools (and even a number of churches) in New York City, or the recent Episcopal schism over gay marriage. In each case, there arises the question of church property. Does it belong to the congregation, or to the larger church as an institution? The pastor as corporation sole seems to me to mediate between these interests.

Well, it's a hypothesis, anyway.

At any rate, it seems to me that one similar way of regarding the King's Two Bodies is as a kind of political compromise – one that recognizes the importance of different parties (the barons and the king, for example) without necessarily spelling out how they can resolve disputes. It's "theology" is that it depicts a kind of cosmic ordering – it recognizes the community as necessary to the authority of the sovereign (compare the Holy Roman Empire – where certain individuals were sovereign not of a community or an area, but merely unto themselves). Returning to the parson analogy, if the parson is a corporation sole, then those who feel themselves members of a church share in his dignity with the Catholic/Anglican church. The measure that each participates is undefined, but it seems to me an exercise of inclusion.

My absolute favorite bit of Kantorowitcz, and what drove me to look back at the Maitland essay, is his discussion on pp. 448-450, which seems to me to sum up a number of points regarding Time and Space (capitalized following EK). The time of the polity is both synchronous and diachronous – it encompasses all the parts of the state at a given moment and also the continuous nature of the body in time, a collectivity that reaches beyond any individual member. One has, then a "fusion, and indeed a pardonable confusion, of Crown and Dignity" (448) in which the Crown refers to the estates with the King at the head and the Dignity to the whole genus to past and future.

This discussion reminds me of one of my own favorite themes (which I hope to discuss in a subsequent post with reference to China) – the deep connection of polity and time. Maitland's essay continues in a direction I would not have anticipated from the passages EK cites – he mentions colonies. After all, did not Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts manage to create corporations that served as political entities. And even places that did not – New Zealand, Australia, Virginia, New York – he cites interesting commentary to the effect that these entities are very like a corporation, but different. In thinking of the crown, Maitland concludes, does it not make more sense to speak of a Commonwealth than of a body?

It seems to me that EK has answered this question. For there is nothing mystical, and therefore in medieval thought nothing permanent, about a commonwealth of the kind that Maitland describes. It is also interesting to me that Maitland's examples are all Criole communities (a la Benedict Anderson – that is, settler communities – colonies that form nationalisms). Rats, when I read it this afternoon I had another thought about this – something about the way the crown is distant – the way that a commonwealth cuts off monarchical power more than would have seemed desirable to many (though obviously not all) in earlier times. I just think Maitland's notion of time is different. The polity he is thinking about – the British Empire – is not one that people can imagine as having always existed, and it is also not one in which the various components necessarily feel themselves (or wish to argue that they are, however metaphorically) a body – with all the tight coordination and seemingly natural unity that the term implies. Victoria was much more like an Empress, resembling, I think, the Qing more than the monarchy of Henry II. The sun might never set on this polity, but the sun was not setting everywhere all at once.

I have to admit that I do not understand why the postmaster, and various other offices, would be treated as corporations sole in this time. Nor can I make sense of the other non-ecclesiastical example Maitland mentions – the Chamberlain of the City of London. There's rather more to this concept than examination of the King alone will reveal.

Here I'm reminded of one of EK's most famous commentators – Michel Foucault, who famously asked if the body of the condemned man was not the counterpart to Kantorowicz's monarch. Images of the polity necessarily exclude, and I'm wondering who was not in. Here my English history fails me – but Jews, for example, do not seem to have formed a necessary limb of the body politic. Still, it seems to me that England was perhaps more cohesive than most places – closer to modern notions of a continuous sphere of sovereignty than most places. Here I rely on a different work of Maitland – his lectures in the history of the English Constitution, in which he points out a peculiarity of English feudalism – that all land in England was the King's land, that tenure in land was "held of" the king, and (most significant a contrast to the continent) that military service was due to the King – not to intermediate feudal lords. Whereas in France, if your Comte and somebody else's Marquis (or whoever) were to have a disagreement, we serfs would have to join the battle – in England (in theory – Maitland is talking about a legal ideal with complicated real-world effects) "the only quarrel by which one is bound is the king's quarrel." I'm wondering if this system did not lead to a closer sense of allegiance or tie to the person of the king – if the notion of a linkage between universal corporate body and individual physical body did not make more sense in this context than it would have in France, to say nothing of Germany or Italy.

My main impression, having read the whole thing, is mainly – what a brilliant book. There's so much to discuss. I want to return to the issue of Bracton, to resume our discussion of current legal issues as well as of medieval aesthetics, to discuss Dante, and to write about my own work (this last may have to take a little more precedence for me, as I have been away from it for too long).

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Welcome, Baseball Fans

This post is really just a way of putting something up other than turgid medieval prose. I think the Mets will have some troubles fending off the Braves, but I like their chances.

I think Barry Bonds is bad for the game. I think the steroid probe is likely to make me feel about baseball the way I feel about bike racing.

Oh, and it will be interesting to see if the Yankees dump Giambi if he's implicated in this latest mess. They surely want to dump his contract, but if the team is beginning to heat up, will they be willing to lose his bat as they start to climb out of this hole?

Finally -- this Yankee team still doesn't have me convinced. There just aren't enough players I feel like you can really count on in the big spot. Their bats will win them games, sure, but it will be kind of like the baseball equivalent of the Atlanta Falcons. If they get going, maybe they have a chance to make the playoffs, but it's more likely that they'll be in the wildcard hunt than beat the Sox.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

King's Two Bodies

To my regular readers.. (twif and Keif) -- this is part of a long discussion with Geoff about The King's Two Bodies. If anybody for some reason has the urge to catch up/join in, you can check out his blog Geoff's Musings. Sorry this is so tedious -- its just that working out ideas is often kind of ugly along the way.

What exactly is the problem in The King's Two Bodies? It is partly a question of origins, or at least of precedents: how did the notion of a single person containing "a Body natural, and a Body politic" come about? It is also a question of effects: what were the consequences of the different manifestations of this doctrine and its antecedents?

I think following up Plowden with Shakespeare addresses the second of these questions as well as the first. It's not simply a question of legal doctrine, it's an examination of the interchange between legal doctrine and a wider culture. Lawyers as well as playwrights must wrestle with problems of kingship – it's a question of royal (yet underaged) gift of the Duchy of Lancaster, and also a question of the way the dual king/King is understood, and (through the brilliance of Shakespeare) understands himself.

So far, the implications of the doctrine include law, self-image of the monarch, and the notion of sovereignty. I'm just going to go through a few more that seemed suggestive to me.


Kantorowicz also sees issues of theology; (p. 17)

…It is of great interest to note how in sixteenth-century England, by the efforts of jurists to define effectively and accurately the King's Two Bodies, all the Christological problems of the early Church concerning the Two Natures once more were actualized and resuscitated in the early absolute monarchy.

I've mentioned a few times now that a classic way of generating political power is by coupling a hierarchical relationship to existing ideas of the cosmos or the body. It's a tricky move, however, for it also means a kind of surrender to the expertise of those thought to know about the cosmos or the body. I'm not sure what level to take Kantorowicz here – is he simply creating his own metaphor, with Aryanism and Nestorianism convenient literary tropes for describing what he wishes to communicate? Or does he think that Trinitarian logic/debate helped figure the depictions of the king?
Here's E.K. (pp. 18-19) :

The implication is not that the lawyers consciously borrowed from the acts of the early Councils, but that the fiction of the King's Two Bodies produced interpretations and definitions which perforce would resemble those produced in view of the Two Natures of the God-man.

He goes on to say that this similarity is "unsurprising." I do wonder, however, whether the English Civil War and its discourse of the King's Two Bodies wasn't closely related to its questioning of the theological edifice on which this duality rested (or at least, which allowed the duality to make sense).

One other note about the Plowden chapter: to what extent is the dual nature of the king really a "fiction"? It isn't clear to me what Kantorowicz means by the terms. He shows that it’s a rather compelling and long lived fiction? I guess it's not clear to me how this concept might be more or less of a fiction than, say, habeas corpus, or private property, or anything else.


The bit of the Shakespeare chapter that particularly raised my eyebrows was on pp. 36-37. Richard II is King and king. The King will continue in a new king, but only a King can effect such a separation. So Richard as King must preside over the abdication – and none other has the power to do so.

According to Kantorowicz (p. 36) "Bit by bit he deprives himself of the symbols of his dignity," but some of Shakespeare's lines seem anything but symbolic (unless the medieval term "symbol" carries some reality I do not understand). It's true Richard gives up crown and scepter, but also "The pride of kingly sway from out my heart/with mine own tears I wash away my balm."

I think that Kantorowicz returns to a reading of the burial of a monarch. That must also be a ritually tricky moment, because one is burying king but not King. What else might fall in the same category? It's this kind of situation I was referring to when I spoke of "kinks" earlier in the conversation.

Also on the subject of ritual – why is the Christ-centered king "liturgical"? I understand the division between a model or Christ and a model of Justice -- but I don’t get the division
liturgical/juristical (for example, page 93).


This is such a quick thought it hardly merits a subsection, but I found the argument about "demise" on page 40 (in which the word "convey" is particularly significant) rather compelling.

At any rate, Kantorowicz's "problem strikes me as a far-reaching one indeed. All I really have to add to what you've said about the "Christ-Centered Kingship" is that the valences of the problem remain multiple in each section. Each example is of law, and of much else. That's one reason the word "secular" bugs me (I've mentioned this before). It seems to cut off certain kinds of associations that strike me as significant

Curious what you made of the argument about the persona mixta on pp. 43-44. You spoke of the commonplace of dual personality in law, and this seems to be another example. There are an awful lot (see the "dual majesties" on p. 20 and the functional duality of man and office on p. 59. And of course the dual natures of Christ I mentioned above). We read that "a certain spiritual capacity was attributed to [the king] as an effluence of his consecration and unction" – again, a power of ritual. But this differs, argues E.K., from the King's Two Bodies—except in certain cases like the Norman Anonymous? or is E.K. doubling back on his own argument, and I just haven't followed the rhetoric?

I don't understand what gemina persona means. But I do get the idea of the dual capacities of the Christlike king, and its expression in..

The haloed Byzantine emperors, and the frontispiece of the Aachen gospels.

So those I think are the spheres we are working with (though surely there are others as well. I guess that's what interests me so much about law (and about this book) – the way its language, symbols, structures, etc. bleed into other areas of life. It seems to me this must be a real problem for lawyers (well, maybe just for judges). The injunction to follow the word of the law seems to me kind of impossible, for the law is everywhere, and it doesn't always make sense.

For that matter, I don't either, and if you have it in you to push me to clarify any of that (especially the last part), let me know.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


April come she will
When the floods subsided
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain;
We sacrificed a lamb, then cooked it in a pit.
May, she will stay,
The flames reflected in the bottoms of the leaves.
Resting in my arms again.
Dancers in the glen circled the maple
June, she'll change her tune,
Then leapt upon our altar.
In restless walks she'll prowl the night
We ate meat with bare hands.
July, she will fly
Our priests poured wine into the stamped earth,
And give no warning to her flight.
then affixed our prayer to the leg of a finch,
August, die she must,
Who flew west, who flew
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold;
To find another finch, another glen, anywhere
September I'll remember
But this place, where, fat with lamb,
A love once new has now grown old.
We could not sleep for the incessant rain.

"April, Come She Will", by Simon and Garfunkel.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tsunamis (excerpts from my nightmares)

When I leapt off the train, my knees squished like guavas.
In my cave I measured the wavelength of gamma rays.

The husband was Swiss, the children surfed.
She bemoaned that their lake had no waves.

When I fell from the Eiffel Tower, the guards laughed.
They reported a trespasser on their short waves.

The ocean is a concave mirror. Let's go
to West Virginia, fish trout, snap pics. Wave!

When I drove to the beach, the dunes were black.
Why do I always dream of tidal waves?

Someday they'll wash me. I'll swim like a porpoise.
On my island: smell of papaya in April and august.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

April 1

Rabbit, Rabbit

Usually I'm on the can, or scrambling
eggs, when I remember being seven,
my teacher telling me to say "Rabbit, Rabbit"
on the first day of the month, before
my feet touch the floor when I get
out of bed. And of course my instep
has creaked the floorboards long since:
no luck for me in Feburary, or March, or now
April. Sometimes, when the calendar hits the twenty-
fifth (or so), I'll think I'll say it this time,
but I haven't mentioned rabbits in thirty years, just wondered
why I care, now that I know that words
disappoint. Comets depart and return, meteors
shower, Fermat's Last Theorem all pass
and still no rabbits. Why two? Perhaps the bunny
is named Rabbit, like a John Updike antihero
who understands the cosmos, who brings luck.
Indeed, why rabbits? I see the drawback
of, say, "Sloth, Sloth," but why not "Hippo, Hippo"
or "Cheetah, Cheetah?" Is it a cultural thing?
Do Chinese kids forget to say "Panda, Panda?"
Would I understand better if I Googled?
Would I acquaint myself with that auspicious hare
who got this whole thing started, who makes
me scream "Rats" every year on the first
(or sometimes I don't notice until the second)?
I no longer expect a good month, just discipline:
if I can't say "Rabbit, Rabbit," how will I ever lose
forty pounds, or climb Kilimanjaro?
It's a small victory I wish to trumpet,
under the sheets one morning as the moon
takes another pass and the cars start
in the vast city that I inhabit. I relish
the spell I'll cast: "Rabbit, Rabbit."

Early Daoism

Early Daoism consisted of four kinds of practice: philosophical speculation on the nature of the cosmos, breathing and visualization exercises related to health, rituals that displayed (and seemed to allow communication with) various beings in the cosmos, and alchemy. Daoists believed that each of these practices could prolong life.

The Cosmos
These ideas obviously rest on certain assumptions about the workings of the world, and the most important of these assumptions is that each part of the universe is related to all the other parts. What you can see, what you can't see, everything you will ever know – all these elements form a coherent whole, and it is this fundamental sense of ordering that leads historians to talk about a "cosmos."

Cosmological thinking emerged in China in the three hundred years leading up to the birth of Jesus. And since Jesus has come up, we might as well dispense with some preliminaries. Because the number of Christians in China is small, it's a little rude to refer to the period as "before Christ." Instead we'll just use an arbitrary label – "Common Era" instead of "A.D." (meaning "the year of our lord"). Things happening before the Common Era I'll call BCE. Of course, the Daoists did not date things this way, and they certainly did not think there was anything special about the year 300 BCE.

So we are beginning our study of Daoism around 300 BCE. It's all kind of arbitrary. Indeed, the name "Daoism" is just as arbitrary. "Dao" simply means "path" or "road," and it has the same metaphorical connotations as in English – "a way of doing something", "a correct path." In 300, numerous states in China were at war with each other, and the rulers of these states were seeking advisors. The advisors were trying to educate the rulers about the correct path – so everybody was in that sense a "Daoist." Everybody claimed there was a way, and everybody claimed to know the right way. When Confucius talks about what to do, he says that we must follow the Dao. His plan was very different from what comes to be known as Daoism.

Later on, I'll try to be more specific about some of the competitors who were setting out various "Daos." For now the important thing to notice is that there is a shared notion of a coherent cosmos, that there are warring states, that there are advisors to the leaders of these states, and that each advisor claims to understand the cosmos. These phenomena are related.

State and Cosmos In the First Three Centuries B.C.E.

The Chinese-speaking world had been unified under the Zhou Dynasty from about 770 to 476 BCE As it became apparent that the old empire was splitting apart and could not be reconstituted, rulers began to seek new ways to reconstitute political authority. Hand in had with this development came new ideas about statecraft, about legitimacy, about the body, and about the universe.

By 221 BCE a single state came to dominance. It was called Qin (note that Q's are pronounced like "Ch". "Qin" rhymes with "gin," and is the root of the English word "China"). The Qin leader declared himself emperor of all China.

There are many ways to be powerful. One of the most effective is to show that your position is inevitable, natural, and good. If I want to become emperor, I probably have to kill a lot of people. If I want to remain emperor, it would be good if I can convince my subjects that my rule results not from brute violence, but from the same forces that create the changing of the seasons. It is in my interest to show that my state is a microcosm of a larger whole.

Here we have a force pushing toward coherence. And given that political rulers tended to have money, and philosophers tended to be hired guns, one finds a lot of philosophy about the relationship of elements of the universe – hence, the creation of the "cosmos." Probably there were other forces at work as well, but this one is the most obvious. At the very least, you can see how there might be people who would want to say that the elements of the world are all interrelated.


I don’t' have a handy political argument for the ways the notion of the body developed. It is clear, however, that Chinese thinkers began to think about what we now call "the body" in the same time period (300 BCE to the start of the Common Era). Here again, we have a semantic trap. "Body" is a little like "BC" – it's not quite the right word. Chinese thinkers were not especially interested in anatomy or surgery. One's "body" was not separable from one's "personhood" and "personality," nor was it ever set into opposition with "mind." The body was instead a permeable membrane – what happened in the cosmos as a whole also took place in the body. It was a microcosm, a part of a larger whole reflecting all the characteristics of the whole.

The ideas I have described here were not unique to Daoism. But they were essential to the claims that Daoist put forth, namely that the cosmos (including the body) underwent a series of transformations, and that understanding these transformations can therefore help extend one's life. Daoist philosophy, medical practice, ritual, and alchemy all follow from this claim.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Powers v. Sacks

I’ve been reading Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. I just finished a chapter about a blind man who had surgery removing cataracts, and was thus able to see. His sight was limited, in part because his retinas were damaged, but mainly because his brain had not since birth developed to process visual imagery. Some desultory thoughts:

I’ve been reading it while keeping in mind the criticisms of the doctor in The Echo Maker. Is Sacks invading this man’s privacy? At times the account feels quite intimate, and it is not at all clear that Sacks has helped the man. “Virgil,” the blind man who can see, descends back into blindness when he gets a terrible case of pneumonia that deprives him of oxygen. All that being said, Virgil is clearly capable of making decisions about his own life, and the account would not have been possible without Virgil’s consent. I’m seconding an earlier point by TK that this aspect of the portrayal of Weber doesn’t ring true.

The story ("To see and not see") gave me great insight into the tendency of the deaf community to reject the hearing, especially to oppose technologies that might enable them to hear. As Sacks points out, seeing for Virgil was disorienting; the experience was one of losing blindness rather than gaining vision. In a footnote, Sacks adds for the deaf, the sense of isolation is doubled – one loses deafness and an entire community. For Virgil, who loses his vision after gaining it, the sense of isolation and rage is far more damaging than the constraints of blindness.

The tale of Mark and Karin got me thinking about our use of "blindness" as a metaphor. It means not merely "not being able to see," but "not recognizing," and "not understanding. Mark is blind to Karin. The reader blind to the writer of the note (I write the sentence and it sounds funny to me… why?). It's not a semantic slippage that I had thought about prior to now, but it must affect the way we treat the blind. It also makes me wonder about Powers' premise. Sure, the mind can come undone. But it is also remarkably resilient, and I remain not fully convinced (intellectually or emotionally) of the particular kind of undoing that transpires in The Echo Maker.

The paragraph I found most interesting (pp. 135-136) in hardcover edition:

In these episodes Virgil was treated by his family as a blind man, his seeing identity denied or undermined, and he responded, compliantly, by acting, or even becoming, blind – a massive withdrawal or regression of part of his ego to a crushing, annihilating denial of identity. Such a regression would have to be seen as motivated, albeit unconsciously – an inhibition on a "functional" basis.

Thus there seemed to be two distinct forms of "blind behavior" or "acting blind" – one a collapse of visual processing and visual identity on an organic basis (a "bottom up" or neuropsychological disturbance…), the other a collapse or inhibition of visual identity on a functional basis (a "top-down", or psychoneurotic disturbance), though no less real for him. Given the extreme organic weakness of his vision – the instability of his visual systems and visual identity at this point – it was very difficult at times to know what was going on, to distinguish between the "physiological" and "psychological." His vision was so marginal, so close to the border, that either neural overload or identity conflict might push him over it.

If Sacks is right, it means our very consciousness is visual. Except when it isn't. I feel that's a far more powerful insight into my own mind than anything I read in The Echo Maker.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Naked Mole Rats -- An Encomium

One of the things I enjoy about knowledge is that it fosters attentiveness. The words of foreign tourists are white noise unless you know their language, the patterns of sediment deposits meaningless until you walk by with a geologist. I used to play frisbee with a group of ornithologists, and if a neighborhood hawk flew over the game would halt and there would follow a discussion of its plumage, its preferred diet, its economy of movement.

I am not the first to sing the praises of the naked mole rat. Dawn Coyote pointed out that a quarter of a documentary was devoted to an expert on the species. The National Zoo has a naked mole rat cam and handy article describing their salient characteristics. The BBC has some great pictures.

These sources tell us that the naked mole rat lives underground and that it is more closely related to the porcupine than to the young-tough-Norwegian rats that lurk about the New York subways like extras from Kids. They congregate in colonies and act more like what you might expect from an ant or a bee. There is a queen with a harem of a few males, and they handle the copulating. The other members of the colony do not reproduce; and the males are sterile. They are the "workers" who dig around and look for food, helped along by two big front teeth. According to the article:

The incisors can be moved independently, spread apart, or moved together like chopsticks. …When working together to dig tunnels in the wild, naked mole rats line up nose to tail and operate like a conveyer belt. A digger mole rat at the front uses its teeth to break through the new soil. Behind the digger, sweepers use their feet and fine hairs between their toes to whisk the dirt backwards. At the back of the line a "volcanoer" kicks the dirt up onto the surface of the ground, creating a distinctive, volcano-shaped mole hill about the height of a ballpoint pen.

So one interesting thing about mole rats is their social nature, the way they work together. Apparently they roll in feces, allowing members of a colony to recognize each other by smell. The actions of the whole colony are greater than the sum of its parts, much like a beehive or an anthill.

There are good genetic reasons for this level of social cohesion. The naked mole rats are highly inbred. If I am a worker naked mole rat, it is thus likely that my brothers and sisters share the same genes as I do. My genes are thus "our" genes, and to spread them to future generations, the mole rat division of labor can make sense. Leave the actual childbearing to the experts (in a year, the queen can have four or five litters of 12 to 27 pups), and as a worker I can specialize in finding food and defending the nest. Workers have been known to attack snakes, sacrificing themselves for the good of the colony. This system will continue because the genes that create these behaviors continue to propagate.

As I understand it, any female can be queen (there is a chemical trigger for queen-like behavior). When the queen dies, the biggest females fight for the position, and to the winner belong the spoils.

To be clear, I don't find mole rats cute or human or endowed with admirable behaviors. I just find them interesting, and take a certain delight in my interest.

I'm glad that there is pleasure in knowledge, and I think that on the whole such pleasure is a social good. I say this even though I am aware that there is also pleasure in false knowledge – at the Great Wall of China I met a guy who was enjoying himself immensely because he thought it had been built by spacemen. "Just look," he said, "tangible evidence of aliens."

I'm glad there's pleasure in knowledge because it is so god-awful hard to change people's minds. When I teach about China I'm struck by the resilience of the stereotypes that students bring to class with them. Sometimes I feel that anything I say can be assimilated and categorized by any world view. And yet there is this pleasure of knowing, which brings with it a certain hope that the man at the Great Wall will sooner or later figure out that Chinese supply lines were more robust than those of Alpha Centauri, or that my students will accumulate enough tidbits that they will sooner or later come across something that does not fit into their respective Weltanschauung.

It's amazing when it happens – when the slow acquisition of facts forces painful revision of something you always thought to be true. As a teacher, I think I could do a better job of acquainting students with such pleasures.

At any rate, here is my encomium for the naked mole rat: it makes me happy.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Tokyo Love Hello

From an online exhibit sponsored by Slate and Magnum. You can find it here, although you may have to rummage through the archive.

A photograph is inherently alienating. It presents an image to a person who is removed from the source of that image, and it arrests time in such a way that the picture seems to belong to history rather than present. The invention of the photograph and the works of early masters like Adams, Evans, and Steiglitz may belong to the modern, but the enterprise as a whole is postmodern -- disjointed and cracked, with images that subvert their own codes. It is these qualities, in addition to reproducibility, that make photography an ideal medium for the web.

If "Tokyo, Love, Hello" were a novel, the writer would be Murakami. If it were in a museum, I would buy tickets and take friends. It feels like performance art, like avant garde filmmaking, like art. It echoes my experience of much of the world, but does so with incredible specificity of image and place. Shinjuku montage, stuffed pandas, cigars, subways. How to photograph disjuncture, ambiguity, and confusion yet still make the images precise? Try swan paddle boats, cats in boxing rings, corporate gymnastics, stairwells, monk telephones, ritual and neon.

The piece makes both Tokyo and photography an experience shared between artist and viewers. It makes misrecognition its subject, and thus acknowledges, pays tribute to, photography's many alienations.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

I Saw a Movie Tonight

I saw a movie tonight so romantic I will not tell you the title. It featured a Brancusi statue, a concert pianist, a soap opera, and a café. A thunderstorm hitting as a girl steps onto the rooftop, and the angle gets a little wider and the Eiffel Tower looms behind. Here is a woman who has slept with father and son. Here is a woman who mouths the words of French pop music as she jams to her iPod. Here is a woman who gets a job in a place that only hires men. Here are people beloved by all Paris who wish only (well, not only, and certainly not always) to be left alone.

A striptease in a concert hall. By the soloist.

And the music – music as overtly sexual as late-night cable; music that will float you out to sea like an elderly Inuit, music like lavender, like cloves, like milk and honey.

I saw a movie tonight that was a postcard to art, a comedy in the fullest sense of the word (think Balzac). It reminded me of when I used to come to New York only for movies, for popcorn and for the feel of a city and for a breath of the hope of love. Those movies, like this one, made me want to drink coffee and write, repeating endlessly until I keeled over or ossified like a Brancusi sculpture. I'm still shaken.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Outline for a Compendium of Non-Musical Sounds

Part I: Tagine

  • Chopping and Cutting


    • Knife through onion
    • Preserved lemon between thumb and forefinger.
    • Barely audible swish of knife through chicken skin.
    • Fork fluffing couscous.
    • Crushing garlic with side of blade.
    • Chicken pieces landing on softened onions
    • Chicken, lemon, olives, couscous, teeth.


    • Knife on keyboard.
    • Wooden spoon on cast iron pan (flattening more garlic).


    • Joint where thigh meets breast.
    • Coffee (cross-reference: electric sounds).

  • Splashing


    • Overflowing from glass into sink.
    • Tap running.
    Sound in mouth. (Note: do others make the same sound? Can they hear me?)


    • Slurping.
    • Disguised slurping following dirty look from wife.
    • Pour into glass.
    • Waves within glass.

  • More Grinding

    • Teeth
    • Mixing couscous and sauce. Fork makes muted grinding sound. (Investigate further.)

  • Chewing

  • Swallowing

    (perhaps this last item is too musical for list)
  • Meditation on Lines by Rilke

    Praising, that's it! Praise was his mission,
    and he came the way ore comes, from silent
    rock. His heart, a wine press that couldn't last
    made us an endless supply of wine.

    Even in the dust his voice won't fail him
    once the godhead has him in its grip.
    All things turn vineyard, all things turn grape,
    in the ripening South of his feelings.

    Nothing can contradict his praise,
    not mold in the royal sepulchre
    nor that a shadow will fall from the gods.

    He's the messenger who stays,
    who carries his bowls of praiseworthy fruit
    across the thresholds of the dead.

    -- Sonnets to Orpheus I:7, David Young, trans.

    The mission of the night is praise (Praise!) and I will praise Paris, though it has been praised before, and better than I could ever praise it. My lyre makes cities reappear -- hear the echoing of my feet when I landed flat footed in a square; see the twist of my face when I ate a cigar; I will walk the length of the quays and skateboard around them again; I will eat cake; I will make words from neon; I will speak in tongues; I will praise Paris.

    Friday, February 09, 2007

    A Reading of "Dire Wolf"

    Dire Wolf

    I have been clattering through my world of late, and also through the archives, thinking there must have been something I missed while ducking my cheek into my collar to hold up against the wind. Sorrows, like a gathering of dire wolves, come in packs. It's a question of loss, how it blinds, how the absence of someone can seem to extinguish the history of their presence. To you I am not speaking anymore. I return to journals and find… nothing. Who was the person that wrote that? How did I feel that way? And now, whom should I address.

    Take, for example, my friend who reversed the intended direction of a shotgun (now that you have gotten these things off your barrel chest) – afterwards I felt weirdly unaffected Sorry to fill my prose with so many words of others, but here's Rilke on the subject, "I've had my dead and let them go, and been astounded to find them so peaceful, so at home in their deaths, so different from their reputation." There is of course a "but' coming –

    "Except for you. You turn back. You hit against me." It is time for you to merge into the sobbing rain. When grief hits, it's shocking to me how I feel at once totally lost and totally self-indulgent. I am not me and yet I am alone and only me, it's all like a one room scene in Appalachia, smeared (like graffiti, like some damn vandal has snuck into my house and smashed my plates and my tables and painted obscenities on all the walls) by fog.

    There are some people I turned to as naturally as I walk in space, as if I went to them for a cup of water I adored you as much as an aluminum bucket of storm after a great unlovely silver thirst. I carried them within me like language, like words that I don't think about until they appear on my computer screen how nice for me. One or two are still with me. Others have become scar tissue somewhere in my liver.

    To be clear: I most emphatically do not know how you feel. To gain even an inkling I have to crack open my Homer, or venture into deserts like the English Patient ("We die in a forest of lovers and tribes") with his Herodotus, or seek some appropriate epic of loss . In the Pleistocene, the wild wolves roamed in scattered sorrows over everywhere, prodigious in appetite, howling at the hollow of everything empty yes everything, and their packs devoured all sorrows and made them a throat covered with a bolt of red.

    Again, this is a pain I do not know; I own my pain ("appropriation"), I hold it and make it me, and write in first person -- that’s what makes it self indulgent. Even when I lose it I keep a record, something to point to and say – "here once was me." And in this way perhaps I can see (but not know or feel) that there are things which can dismantle entirely
    A spirit, such as the pathetic maledictive fear of loss

    You've asked us to pray, and that seems right – that words should be found and given to you. (Of loss:you get to speak of it, once you are its intimate…) I can offer you only the hope of blessings, the bare outline of speech (...and not before). But I hope my words can find you, and you can make something of them, and while I continue to clatter through my own whatever-it-is, you can find something in the snow of your computer screen, and that a blessing for you can be that

    in the great white rendezvous, where

    I was brooding
    Just a while, you get to speak of dire love.

    For Isonomist.

    Tuesday, February 06, 2007


    Patrick Ewing receives the ball in the low post. He puts his jaw back where it's supposed to go. He scowls at all comers, and dunks. That's Knick basketball.

    Being a Yankee hater, I can live with the Mets. I dislike the Giants, the Jets, the Rangers, the Devils, and the Islanders. I can live with the Nets. But the only team I love, the only team I care about in this, my adopted city, my new found regional center, is the New York Knicks.

    So naturally, I'm rooting for them to lose. I want Isiah Thomas to no longer be my neighbor. I want Madison Square Garden to be more aesthetically appealing than Penn Station. I want basketball.

    In any normal conference, this is a team that would be a doormat. It doesn't deserve to exist. It's laughing at Darwin, sneering at any kind of logic, they kind of hang around despite their remarkable suckiness.

    I just want them to lose. Lose, lose, lose. As long as Isaiah Thomas is in the building, I want them to lose. I want humiliation. I want the Garden to be Artaudian in its theater of cruelty. I want Isaiah gone.

    Because if you don't have a team, are you at home?

    Thursday, January 25, 2007

    College Conversations

    I have no real memory of college conversations, the words spoken or the arguments made. But I remember the topics and the people involved, and remember -- "that was an awesome conversation." I remember those moments more vividly than the times I was "having fun." I've been trying to reconstruct some of this because I look at the bored faces of my students and try to convince them that there is something exciting about the life of the mind.

    1. Everybody is beautiful. How are they beautiful. We sat in chairs on the lawn, drinking beer and describing as best we could the beauty of those who walked by. Blech, maybe, but it was eye-opening for me, a testament to how much of ourselves we betray just by walking.

    2. Interfaith dating. It was a conversation about communication and cultural norms, about negotiating a relationship. I realized when I got married -- we all believe different stuff, just sometimes we're more upfront about it.

    3. China. I talked my face blue about life in China. I was asking questions, other people told me how it was.

    4. Race. Actually, the conversations were rather painful, and often stupid, but at least they were honest, and an honest conversation about race is hard to come by.

    5. How are you going to die?

    Tuesday, January 23, 2007


    We at august philippic wish you to know that we have not yet turned on Angelina Jolie. She has our full support for the coming season.

    In other news, China shot down a satellite. We'd like to express our sympathy for the satellite, which was no doubt a symbol of budding democracy, or a special unicorn satellite, or perhaps "puppysat," tracking man's best friend. Curse you evil Chinese! How dare you shoot your own satellite? And not invite us along?

    We at august philippic are feeling surly.