Wednesday, November 29, 2006

the state of religion

"Religious liberty is a fundamental expression of human liberty and that the active presence of religion in society is a source of progress and enrichment for all. This assumes, of course, that religions do not seek to exercise direct political power, as that is not their province, and it also assumes that they utterly refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of religion."
-Pope Benedict XVI

It is odd to see the Vatican waving the flag for liberalism. It was not all that long ago that Rome was fairly sure that political liberalism was the death of Christendom, a mark of the decline and decadence of Christian society and a sure path to immorality. Even as recently as the Second Vatican Council, when the Church threw open its doors to the world, its statements on religious freedom and politics were ambiguous, as many of the Bishops took advantage of the illness of the American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray to tone down the strongest of Murray's proposals which he had outlined in the initial drafts. Many still felt the Church should not surrender the idea of the Catholic state and completely capitulate to liberalism.

Now under Ratzinger-turned-Pope (and this tendency was already present in Ratzinger before he became Benedict XVI) liberalism is itself the legacy of Christendom: to be European, to be Christian, and to be politically liberal go hand in hand. This was a mistake John Paul II never made: as much as he fought against Communism, the social teachings of JP2 remained critical of the Euro-American capitalism-liberalism political organization. Benedict XVI on the other hand, who seems to have forgotten that he is a political figure and not simply a religious one (I understand the Vatican is small, so maybe he just forgot it was a state, even if he is in charge of it), now instructs Muslims on religious freedom, reminding them that religion and politics are two different spheres. Maybe he is considering giving up the Vatican's seat at the U.N., though I seriously doubt it. So, not only is it hypocrisy, but it is hard to find justification for such a position in contemporary Catholic thought which insists so strongly that humanity finds itself, always and everywhere, in a relation with God, finds itself graced. One does not cease to be religious just because one has entered into political action. This is not to say that religious freedom has no place in Catholic thought. Ideally it always has (though let us be honest and admit that Islam did a much better job of tolerating religious diversity during its time in Europe than did their Christian contemporaries and immediate successors). But the separation of faith from politics is a dead faith and a blind politics. Politics will always be religious insofar as it attempts to ask 'what is the Good?'; and when politics ceases to be able to ask that question it becomes the enemy of the human soul.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

the struggle (part 3)

god is a word, a concept. therefore, just as god is not one, god is not good, god is not beauty, god is not love, god is not being, so also, god is not god.

for st.anselm, the pursuit of truth was a matter of faith seeking understanding. today it is a matter of aesthetics seeking reason.

to speak plainly is a mistake. the discourse of the day numbs one to the reality of the human situation, answers every question before it is asked and chafes at any disruption of its supremacy. but it is merely a tyranny of truth that disguises mutilation. we must mutilate language so that the Truth may appear undisguised.

in a culture unable to see the activity of grace permeating everything, persons are confronted with objective circumstances that are, often, so entrapped within a limited account of practical reason that only an ‘irrational’ act can address the truth of the situation. this is what flannery o’connor calls “a reasonable use of the unreasonable”: the attempt to enter into the real problematic of the object so deeply that the objective contradictions that are everywhere present can actually lead us to truth. this is why the grotesque features so prominently in o’connor’s writings. the grotesque corresponds to the demands of reality and is the tool by which truth shows itself. the genuinely universal and good act is not possible and so the truth is only ever seen indirectly. by exposing the distorted nature of reality, the grotesque act opens up for future action a newer and truer set of possibilities beyond the brokenness in which persons find themselves. reconciliation is only thinkable here and now as the negation of that which is. in this way the very fact of our mutilated being, to which we are so often blind, becomes clear, and gives voice to its desire to transcend its own false-existence.

hobbes argued that in the state of nature we are all equal, because any one can be killed by anyone else. even the strong must sleep. today, life is rapidly becoming ever more natural.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

a short rebuttal (marcella sends a note of reply to her husband porphyry)

Iman Maleki, "Dizziness" (2003?)

you wrote it out in chapter and verse, line by line.

i read between the lines. i can see what you are not saying. you wish to speak with certainty, but i make you doubt, make your hand tremble. you wish to speak rationally, logically, and you hate me for filling you with passion, for finding the emotion of your words. i relativize your objectivity; i pull the ground out from under your speech. your words float about the page. i am too close? mine is a real body, and i will break through all the words you use to contain me. the page will burst from the strain. i am the interruption and i am here to stay.


Friday, November 24, 2006

aesthetic truths

Evelyn de Morgan, "Earthbound" (1897)

you wanted blues and reds; you knew what was white and what was not.

i have lived my life in the decadence of marines and merlots. you called for me to let down my hair so you could scale my tower. instead i shaved it, letting it run down: pools of ink in the floor; you thought you would fall in. i dipped my toes in it, tipped with diamond, and wrote my name on the mahogany. you demanded simplicity so i discarded my bracelets and silks and walked barefoot over floors the color of january and rugs of anger. you cursed the nakedness of my body; the hue voluptuous was too much for you, and you could not distinguish between glorious and heretical. you accused me of witchcraft: eyes of threatening apocalypse, lips the shade of orpheus. you lashed out at the impertinence of my palette and i shattered like porcelain underneath those blows. but still i cut you, splinters of me beneath your skin. in a voice of primary colors you denounced me, pronounced me unholy, named my tower Traitor and left me alone to refashion myself in the shades of complexity: i who knew the difference between yellow and gold.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

the gaze and (islamic?) women

For those of us who, by force of circumstance actually live the
pluri-cultural life as it entails Islam and the West, I have long felt that a
special intellectual and moral responsibility attaches to what we do as scholars
and intellectuals. Certainly I think it is incumbent upon us to complicate
and/or dismantle the reductive formulae and the abstract but potent kind of
thought that leads the mind away from concrete human history and experience and
into the realms of ideological fiction, metaphysical confrontation and
collective passion. This is not to say that we cannot speak about issues of
injustice and suffering, but that we need to do so always within a context that
is amply situated in history, culture and socio-economic reality. Our role is to
widen the field of discussion, not to set limits in accord with the prevailing

Edward Said, Orientalism (2003 Preface)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, "The Grand Odalisque" (1814)

Ingres's "Odalisque" is an outstanding example of the way in which the Western disfiguring of women is merged with and projected as fantasies of the Islamic world, disguised as historic portrayal, curiosity about, or even criticism of the Islamic treatment of women. Ingres is often noted for the manner in which he portrays the "ideal" and here he uses the occasion of the female harem slave to project his fantasized ideal. Is it any accident to begin with that the woman is enslaved? She is unfree, held in place for the viewer toward whom she turns, with an empty, emotionless look, to meet his (sic) gaze. The framing of the picture is tight, allowing little possibility or hope of imagining the movement of her figure. She is inert and languid. But even more disturbing, in what appears at first glance to be a realist painting (he pays great attention to the details pertaining to every "thing" that appears in the painting), Ingres actually disfigures the woman to achieve the effect he desires in his idealized sexual object: most strikingly, the spine is unnaturally lengthened and twisted to achieve the long back coupled with the look back over the shoulder, and one arm is lengthened as well to make it proportionate with the back. Thus, what is presented to the viewer as a realistic portrayal of the sexual enslavement of women in the Islamic world, actually carries in it the sinister nature of the deformed Western ideal of the female which is no less violent to the female-self.


the three major anatomical distortions that are normally mentioned are:

1. the lengthening of the spine by 3 to 5 vertebrae, depending on who you ask. this can actually be seen by the non-biology-lab-inclined, such as myself, if you will observe where the curvature of the spinal column ends, then the dimples above the buttocks and then the placement of the buttocks themselves and compare them too your own spinal column (the other way of framing the complaint is that she doesnt have bones there at all, which is an observation that many make about the curvature of her right arm as well)

2. right arm is LONG, and while it matches the back to some degree, it is the right arm alone that has been lengthened. it is a little hard to tell due to perspective, but the left arm is fairly normal.

3. finally, and the one i didnt really mention earlier...notice the poor woman's legs. the left leg is actually on top of the right leg in a very unnatural and arguably impossible fashion (adding to those who complain about her not having bones at all).

the readings of the "odalisque" fall into several categories.

1. ingres's odalisque is the most important painting (some do actually go that far!) of the 19th century because he is the first (or among the first) to mess around with reality, forshadowing later modernism.

2. ingres paints ideals. to be concerned with the concrete matter, is to miss the fact that the matter only points to the form of the beautiful (the beautiful woman, or is woman herself simply something to be seen through as so much matter?). this then is a classic portrayal of female beauty, where the classicists have never been all that concerned about natural poses (or lighting, or if little tiny fat babies fly around their paintings). im willing to buy that this is what was going on in ingres mind, at least to a point. i certainly think ingres knew what he was doing.

3. there is a positive reading which says that ingres did it to call attention to the twisted nature of harem life: accentuated the buttocks and placed her in an unnatural pose. if there was some evidence for that in his other paintings i would be willing to run with it a ways, but ingres shows little evidence that the harems are more than fantasy lands of the male sexual gaze/imagination. he is an orientalist painter with a typical taste for the decadent and exotic....and so, i offer my reading. which i dont claim to be anything like the last word, but i find the conjunction of the painter's view of this woman as woman, and the painter's view of this woman as a member of islamic society to be a fruitful way of approaching his work.


Monday, November 20, 2006

the struggle (part 7)

Katherina Chapuis, Untitled (2004)

anger is madness

pilate asked “what is Truth?” in the hope that by asking the question he could avoid the answer, much as one tries to ward off insanity by asking “am i crazy?”. but it is a mistake to point to the brokenness of being human and take refuge in scepticism as pilate did. instead brokenness is the opening to Truth.

1. powerful, commanding authority, capable of achieving and possessing, forceful;
2. the ability to perform sexually, said of a male
beware, these are not two different definitions

it should not come as a surprise that the site, both geographic and intellectual, which occidentals call the middle east is seen not only as exotic, but as something erotic: a place where sexuality is unleashed in the absence of the civilizing impulse. no matter the truth, the face of this middle east will be the niqaabi. this eroticized vision is a necessary part of western policy towards the region: the world where potency must be demonstrated. the violence and eroticism cannot be separated. so it is no accident that the two constant images that mesmerize the mainstream occidental media are the militant and the restrained, and thus sexually available, woman.

the nomad and the pilgrim are an important bulwark against fascism because they know that home is not a matter of birth, but of ecstasy. this is why it is important to “proclaim that the people must hajj” so that “they will come from the farthest locations.”

a short definition of human nature: ecstasy

barbarism: the belief that nature is fate

if one truly desires the Whole one can have no nation or natus. water washes away blood.



will you go down into the river
of words you do not yet know, and can not control
will you let them flood over you
until you are washed away
will you breathe them in
and let them fill your lungs
- they are broken but powerful -
will you drown here, surrender to the rush of meaning
towards a Future for which you hope
abandon yourself to the promise of Peace
will you ever learn how to


Saturday, November 18, 2006

occupation: house-wife.....wait a minute here

I have been seeing the same eye doctor for several years now. Of course, it is an eye doctor, which means I have been to the office a grand total of three times. We are not exchanging Christmas cards or anything. Because it is so long between visits, each time I visit there is always paper work to fill out: something about insurance, blah, blah (I tuned out right after someone said "...and sign this one by the 'x'").

And then there is always this one last form: matters of personal history for the doctor's personal records. Most of this is useful information of course. But the last question on that little yellow page is, "what is your occupation?". My first reaction is usually paranoia: "who wants to know", the eyes narrowing suspiciously. Then I start to scan down the list.

Now just to be clear, I do "work" part-time, but let's also be clear, adjunct teaching pays...for my gas and a trip to Wendys on the way there. Given that I do it because I enjoy teaching, and also given how extremely flexible my schedule is, and that I do not do it for the money, I really consider it more like volunteer work. Some people go down to the Salvation Army, others to the Catholic Worker soup kitchen, others still to the Humane Society...I teach.

Education is on the list. But what strikes me is down at the very, very bottom of that list: at the very bottom of the list, the final answer is "house-wife". I cring. To the casual viewer, I do not look like much of a feminist. I do not own a bright pink, "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" tshirt. I easily resisted the temptation to get the free tshirt the Women's Center was passing out: it said something to the effect of "I don't know what a feminist is, all I know is I get accused of being one every time I do something to distinguish myself from a doormat." They only had size-small left in navy blue. Alas. It is true, I do not shave my legs or underarms, but the real force of my social statement is lost once one recalls that I am male. In other words, I am what my wife laughingly refers to as "passing".

But the truth is, I cook, I go grocery shopping, I run the errands, I clean (some days better than others). She still does not let me near her laundry (you screw up one time....). I stare at the page. I harumph. I put an X next to house-wife, and turn it in. I figure someone will notice and see how silly this is, realize that familial care is not somehow beneath men, nor is it "women's work" and correct such a poorly designed question. Obviously not, because two years later, same questionnaire, same set of answers. This time I put the X in the same box, but when I hand it in I point out to the receptionist the poor choice of words. She stared at me like I had grown a second head...and was contemplating whether or not that meant she could charge me for two eye appointments. She asked what word I thought they should use. I suggested homemaker; she glared at me and sent me to the doctor. She did only charge me for one appointment though.

Two years later and visit three: same silly form, same silly answers. This time I take it up with that final question unanswered, and ask (as it turns out) the same receptionist what answer she thinks I should give. This is probably bad form, I freely admit; but c'mon! they have been using this silly form for four years now without changing it, and what does my occupation have to do with my visit to the EYE DOCTOR anyway? Once again she looks at me like I have grown two heads. I explain what I do. She looks at me, she looks at the list: "Looks like you are a housewife to me". I had to laugh. In the moment it was funny. Then she laughed a little. I filled it in. Then she laughed for real. Somehow I was satisfied.

Apparently now it is official: "House-wife" is gender neutral. In two years I will go and fill out that form yet again, and put an X in that very last box at the bottom of the page, and smile.