Saturday, December 30, 2006

eid mubarak

asalaamu aleikum,

may god bless and keep y'all, and may all our wills increasingly conform to god's own.

eid mubarak,
LoA and She.

Friday, December 29, 2006

the promise of victory (a draft)

Franz Stuck, "Lucifer" (1890)

we sat amid the ruins of the new jerusalem
at the dawn of the end of the day

as the fires smoldered amid the walls
and the soldiers put on a parade

there was dancing and singing
and the leaders were there
there were horses and canons and songs
there were trumpets blaring
to drown out the noise
of the sacrifice of innocents below

in the valley of gehenna
the children were dying
and the soldiers put on a parade
marching each one
to Moloch's brash song
and to the pounding drums of rage

the war god was living
and the people were singing
and band played all through the night
his priests smiled sweetly
and promised us victories
and in the flow of blood took delight

and while death embraced us
and the people made love
to hate by the ocean that night
the screams of the children
came up from gehenna
to the ears of old Moloch

we sat amid the ruins of the new jerusalem
that city that sits on the hill

as the lights went out one last time
and Moloch walked smugly away


let there be blood

we wait for the death of one more person in iraq. cnn promises it is imminent. he is at the site of his execution. certainly he will not be the only one to die there today: not the only person killed even. probably not even the only one executed, as executions in various forms seem to have become a common place, especially in baghdad. no one seems to be content until the blood runs to the bridles. so by all means, let there be blood.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

north carolina: its about the tobacco, stupid!

for those of you looking for something a little less likely to put you to sleep than an account of poverty in a 1st century christian author, i offer the following...

let us call the year 1980: it is a nice round number and my memory is not so good when it comes to years. my life is divided by events: before saudi, saudi, after saudi, college, masters, ph.d, now. this falls in the years just before saudi.

we referred to my maternal grandmother as 'granny'. now my granny was quite the character, and indeed i should start a new segment called "granny stories" just for nancy, because i know she loves them so much (yes, that's right, i know you are out there, even if you are just lurking). anyway, one saturday afternoon, granny drives into town (where my family is from, 'town' is anywhere with a stop light, but generally refers to the western half of the county) to go shopping at piggly wiggly (a grocery store) and eckards (a drug store). upon arriving she promptly proceeds to lock her purse in the car. so, she finds a pay phone (what did we do before cell phones?) and calls my father to come and help her.

the drive into 'town' is about 15minutes from where my parents have their house (about 25 mintues from granny's house, for those who are trying to draw a map), and my father was working in the backyard. so let's say he took 7 minutes to clean up a little, and get the things he needed to get her car unlocked and then add the 15minutes to drive into town. this adds up to a grand total of 22minutes. so let us say my father arrives at granny's location 22minutes after she calls. he arrives to find her standing by the car, the driver's side window broken in. granny has thrown a brick through the driver's side window so that she could get into her car. "why?" you might ask, has she done such a thing. it would be a very natural thing for you to ask, and not surprisingly my father also asked this question. granny's answer: "my ciggies were in my purse."

just by the way, in the way of a post-script...granny called the police to report that someone had vandalized her car!


poverty and power in luke

The Gospel of Poverty

When one pays close attention to Jesus, as presented in Luke, one finds an interest and emphasis on the issue of poverty. Luke is well aware that in the everyday of functions of life, privilege and deference are usually extended to those with money, while those who are outcasts and those who are poor are ignored, discriminated against and often despised. But there are many scenes from Luke's Gospel, many of them unique to Luke, which demonstrate his belief that the coming of the Kingdom of God reverses this ordering of existence, and that Jesus embodies this reordering.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, "The Annuciation" (1898)

The Birth Narrative

There are two important incidents relative to the theme of poverty in the opening chapters of Luke. Having begun with the birth of John the Baptist and the announcement of that miraculous birth to John's father, Zachariah, Luke moves on to the birth of Jesus. While in the Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus the focus is largely on Mary's prospective husband, Joseph, and his indecision concerning what to do about the pregnancy of his bride (especially since he is not the father), Luke focuses instead on Mary. The angel Gabriel, who had already appeared to Zachariah (1.19), now appears to Mary to announce the miraculous birth of her son, who will be conceived without sexual intercourse (1.34-35).

Mary replies in the form of a hymn that echoes the song of Hannah (I Sam. 2.1-10). Hannah had been barren, and having prayed to God to grant her this blessing, she was granted a child which she dedicated to the service of God in gratitude for his birth. Now Mary also has a child who will do the will of God. Mary declares that the child will be a demonstration of divine strength. The proud are to be humbled, the powerful are deposed from their thrones, and the rich are stripped of their goods. God will then promote the lowest to prominence and assure that the hungry are fed (1.52-53).

But there is another more interesting and telling contrast between Matthew and Luke. In Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus, it is the rich and powerful from far off places that come to visit Jesus and celebrate his birth. The magi travel a great distance, and are of such standing that they are allowed to visit the political ruler of the land. Upon finding Jesus they give him very expensive gifts (Mt 2.1-12). By contrast, Luke has angels come and announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds sitting in the dark with their flocks. They do not bring gifts. Instead of being the one who receives gifts, Jesus is the gift that has been given to them. These poor, those who have nothing, are the ones on whom God has looked with favor (2.8-20).

What one finds in these two examples is that Luke is already using the birth narrative to argue that God's power and strength are not comparable to the royalty and power of this world. God's power and strength favors those who are powerless and poor. It is not something that attracts the wealthy, but overturns their tyranny.

Jules Bastien-LePage, "The Beggar" (1880)

Sermon on the Plain (and the Sermon on the Mount)

One of the most famous parts of the message of Jesus, as it is found in Luke, is what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Plain. The sermon is memorable if for no other reason than the repetitive cadence with which it is delivered. Over and over Jesus tells us "Blessed are..." and then goes on to list the blessed, those on whom God has looked with favor. Luke likewise follows this up with a series of "Woe to...", listing those who stand in opposition to the coming Kingdom of God. Luke's list is straightforward. God has come to bring the Kingdom to those who are poor, those who are hungry, and those who suffer and are hated (6.20-23). The Kingdom though stands in judgment against the fat, rich and decadent rulers of this age, since they have profited and taken delight at the expense of others, and they will be overthrown (6.24-26).

This is a remarkable enough example of Luke's privileging of the poor and reversal of standard conceptions of power, but it becomes even more striking when one contrasts Luke's account with that of Matthew. First of all, there is the setting. Matthew literally places Jesus in a position of height, overlooking his audience, and so, in Matthew, this comparable event in the life of Jesus is called the Sermon on the Mount. Luke places Jesus in a flat place which de-emphasizes the authority and power which is the focus of Matthew's geographic setting. Then, when one turns to the content of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount one quickly notices that it altogether lacks the curses (or "Woes") found in Luke's depiction of Jesus' sermon. The denigration of earthly power that is central to Luke is not to be found in Matthew's account. But while that absence is important, the alternative wordings that Matthew chooses for the blessings clearly show the power of what Luke has chosen to emphasize. Matthew, in two spots where he clearly overlaps with Luke, the blessing of the poor and the blessing of the hungry, chooses to spiritualize that blessing. For Matthew those who are blessed are "poor in spirit" (Mt 5.3) and those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness" (Mt 5.6). In Luke there is no such relativization of the blessing. It is those who are poor and starving that God has come to deliver, and who will be the graced and chosen in the new Kingdom.

David Teniers the Younger, "The Rich Man Being Led to Hell" (c.1647)

The Problem of Wealth

While Matthew does, in a limited way, suggest that wealth is an impediment in another place (Mt 19.24, a passage shared with Luke (18.25) and Mark (10.25)), what we find lacking in Matthew that is constantly present in Luke is the placement of this idea of the overturning of the relations of wealth and poverty at the very center of the message of Jesus. What is clear is that wealth ties a person to a set of conditions that are positively detrimental to their salvation. This is seen in two stories that are unique to the Gospel of Luke.

First there is the story of the one who prospers. As he prospers he begins to be concerned with how to store and protect his increasingly abundant goods. He builds barns, and new buildings, and makes plans to enjoy the good life. But, says Luke, such a person, in the process of becoming wealthy has become poor and disgusting in the eyes of God. Wealth is not an insurance that can guarantee the soul, nor can it purchase eternal happiness. When one is dead, one's wealth is lost and so one person who spends their life building and caring for their goods is truly impoverished for they have nothing of real value (12.13-21). Indeed, they are dead already.

But what is clear, from the second story is that this is not simply a subjective problem, a problem of the soul. Wealth exists at the expense of those without, and by its very existence treats with distain the poor that God has chosen as God's own. Thus one finds in the story of Lazarus and the rich man that the poor and sick Lazarus lies in the streets without respite, while the Wealthy lives in sumptuous luxury. But the earthly appearances are deceiving, and it is ultimately the poor and meaningless Lazarus who finds himself in Paradise, while the powerful are condemned and suffer (16.19-31). As Abraham's words to the Wealthy makes clear, the fault against the Wealthy is not subjective, but the objective fact of his wealth which itself created his own damnation; he is guilty of nothing other than being the Wealthy. In each case, in the coming Kingdom of God, wealth and power are overturned in favor of the powerless, poor and hungry.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot, "Mary Magdalene's Box of Very Precious Ointment" (1902)

The Good Samaritan

In the end it is the outcast who knows and understands the sympathy, compassion and care that are the hallmarks of real divine power. Having suffered under oppression and having been despised, they are not offended by the suffering of others. And so, when, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, a man is waylaid, beaten, robbed and left for dead, the ones who are symbols of holiness and religious power, those associated with the Temple, avoid him, crossing to the other side of the road so as not to have to be near him (10.31-32). But then a Samaritan comes along. The Samaritans were marginal members of Jewish society, because they did not participate in the Temple cult, and did not view Jerusalem as holy. But this outcast is the one who demonstrates the compassion of God. He rescues the stranger and pays for his treatment (10.33-36). Once again we find Luke stressing the way in which it is actually the powerless which prefigure the Kingdom of God.

Edward Blair Leighton, "The King and the Beggar Maid" (1898)


Indeed, the wealthy and powerful were by Luke's estimation, both objectively disordered and subjectively deaf to the message of repentance and had no interest in a real coming of the Kingdom of God. The rich man had been given ample opportunity, Luke warns, even miracles would not change the mind of him or those like him (16.27-31). This is why Jesus was sent to the dregs of society, to those who could hear a message of hope. As the religious leaders of the day complained, Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, stayed in their homes, treated them as neighbors. For Luke it is not the poor who are thieves, but those who profit off of others in supposedly legitimate ways and go home with a clean conscience at night. This is why Luke threatens society with the great reversal. The last will be first, and in the end the first will be last, because it is those who are society's last, those who are not enmeshed in this world, who are closest to God.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

god is not rich

i hate those people that tell you
money is the root of all that kills
they have never been poor
they have never known the joy of a welfare christmas

everclear, "i will buy you a new life," so much for the afterglow (1997)

Edward Blair Leighton, "The Charity of St.Elizabeth of Hungary" (c.1900)

i spent the better part of this past semester arguing to my students that francis may have been crazy, but if he was it was the good kind of crazy. i argued that francis needed to be interpreted not merely economically and politically, though this was important, but as a mystic, in the tradition of pseudo-dionysius and meister eckhart; that there was little distance between bonaventure's theory and francis's praxis.

partly i made this argument for my own benefit. i have always struggled a bit with the franciscan tradition and the belief that poverty was a good. in the 21st century the distance between the medieval mendicant orders looks small, but the franciscans really were radical in a way that, for instance, their nearest contemporaries, the dominicans, were not. for dominic, poverty was pragmatic. wealth symbolized corruption, decadence and heartlessness to those dominic was trying to reach. thus dominic insisted that the order lay aside wealth in order to reach those persons. francis on the other hand embraced poverty as a good.

i grew up in a home that was poor. the poor child of parents who were pulling their own way out of even greater poverty. my father spent most of his childhood in a small two room house that i only knew as a shed, leaning precariously to one side, used to store my great-uncle's lawn mower and a few other gardening items. it fell down a few years ago when a hurracaine blew it over. my parents were both the first in their families to get college educations. my father did not finish his until well after i was born. my mother, who was, in her youth, a better student, never used her teaching degree to earn money until after my little sister left home when i was in my 20s. i came along and interrupted her plans of being an elementary school educator.

we lived in a trailer in the middle of a large trailer park: the north carolina sun beating down and baking my mother in summers so that she would flee, me in tow, to the shopping mall or grocery store in order to find air conditioning. my first christmas was a green-stamp christmas. i have vague memories of our already outdated black and white television being broken for several years because they could not afford to fix it. there was a small (and later larger) garden through-out my childhood, not because my parents had any particular interest in gardening, but because it meant they did not have to buy so many vegetables. i could go on...

the truth is, i was so young i did not realize we were poor and by the time i was old enough to be able to comprehend it my father had completed his engineering degree and was working full time and we were not poor any longer. nonetheless it gradually became clear to me that we had been poor and that this was not the poverty of francis. this poverty hung about the necks of my parents like a millstone and they needed, desparately, to get out from under it. the poverty of francis was meant to be freeing, and freedom lived in pursuit of god. the goal was to create a situation in which one no longer desired anything other than god. and so, just as the great mystics would strip away every concept that stood between them and god, so also, francis insisted on stripping away every physical reality. it was a struggle to master not only the mind, but the desires of the body as well: to recover the beautiful edenic life, where body responded to mind, and reason and the will governed the material order.

it is a truism of medieval theology that god does not need anything. god is the Whole, full and complete. and if one is to be engodded, if is to be an alter-Christus, as francis's companions identified him, one must also desire nothing. this could only happen when one let-go and could simply be. god does not have nor possess, nothing belongs to god as a piece of property, god is the One that is also All, with nothing to lose or gain. for francis poverty was the way of capturing that idea, a way of reaching the point where one could simply identify in one's being and will with the divine in perfect love.

i am not poor; indeed i am, when looking at the world in its entirety - though this perspective is lost if one lives in america too long - one of the rich, one of the aristocrats, so fascinated by francis. i am elizabeth of hungary, looking for some way to lay aside my crown. having been spared the poverty of my family's background, i am now unable to find the poverty of francis and am instead trapped within the poverty of riches. i still have my theoretical issues with "voluntary poverty", but where will one find an alter-francis, in any case, that could show one the way?


on the possibility of the gift

...forgiveness and gift have perhaps this in common, that they never present themselves as such to what is commonly called experience, a presentation to consciousness or to existence...
-Jacques Derrida, "To Forgive" (1999)

Ad Reinhardt, Untitled (c.1958)

without box: cardboard, color of sturdy brown, corners sharp and well defined to provide compartmentalization and precise dimension, a place well-suited and well-confined

without paper to annouce the gaeity that must be attendent with the ripping and tearing excitement, but also declaring the limits thereof with the passing of the paper into disposibility: laughter only in its time, joy in due season

and ribbons - certainly not ribbons and lace - that tight bond of frilly, faux fraternity that is only an affect: to be untied and thus undone

but because without

i lie in bed wondering if anything has transpired at all, having long elaborate conversations of light against lattice and the silence of wind staring at the window.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Thursday, December 21, 2006

hajj (1982/1403)

And proclaim that the people shall observe Hajj. They will come
to you walking or riding on various exhausted (means of transportation). They
will come from the farthest locations. (22:27-28)

Johan Berthold Jongkind, "Leaving the Port of Honfleur" (1865)

my very first flight left from a small airport in new bern in the rain. i hobbled around the lobby waiting to board, a crutch under each arm because less than a week before i had twisted my left ankle so badly that the muscle tear had literally pulled bone away from the side of my foot. but they were nothing but an annoyance to me now; i felt no pain, only that they were slowing things down.

when we finally boarded i was excited about flying in a way that i have since more than recovered from. the plane pushed its way up into the gray sky and bounced its way along towards dc. my mother's face was the same color as the sky long before we got there.

by the time we arrived in nyc i decided it was time to dump the crutches. the foot never healed correctly and it still hurts for me to sit cross-legged if my left foot is on the bottom, but even now i dont regret it. i walked on two feet onto what is still the largest plane i have ever been on. the pan am double-decker had sleeping quarters on the upper floor for those who had the money. but the government was only paying for our family to fly third class.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, "Arabs Crossing the Desert" (1870)

it is not only the largest plane i have ever been on, it may well be one of the most crowded flights i have ever been on. i have been on other full flights since, all of which were much less enjoyable, but this flight teemed with life. there was an energy i could not have understood at the time which made the plane seem about to burst. and that energy lasted for almost every minute of the fifteen hour, non-stop flight.

it was almost as if we had booked a flight on a family reunion. people, most of whom had never met before that flight, chatted joyously like old friends, relatives departed and only now reunited. i dont remember when the singing started. somewhere over the atlantic, in a language i could not understand, people, drunk on nothing but happiness, joined together in one voice. in and out of a dramamine induced sleep, stretched across the lap of a total stranger, the festivities went on around me. this was flying, and flying was a party.

we were over land and the party went in an uneven ebb and flow when a transformation began to take place. a slow stream of people male and female began to move to the bathrooms, still three or four hours from our destination. they began to undress themselves of america and become something else. fantastic clothing, a sea of flowing white, but new to me, unseen before and thus fabulous, like butterflies. and as the transformation took hold among the passengers, leaving only us as defective, stunted human beings trapped in our cocoons, the party in the sky reached its climax until someone, in the now-foreign language that was english, announced that we were descending.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, "An Arab Caravan" (c.1870)

it was a descent into light, and overwhelming brightness. as we approached the ground i stared out the window: a small herd of camels trotted underneath us, glancing casually upwards. the plane slammed downward onto the runway, as if we could not land fast enough now. the shutters banged down and everyone let out a collective gasp, and then applause.

the plane parked not far from the terminal and a ramp was brought alongside. and we advanced slowly upon the exit. i was a child of the south, raised on heat and humidity in equal portion with eggs and grits. but when i stepped off that plane, nearly blinded by the purity of the light, i was embraced by the new world, wrapped in warmth and moisture that tangibly took hold of me. and i was in dhahran.


the virtue of being broken (a brief reflection on heidegger's being and time, §16)

Evelyn deMorgan, "Cassandra" (1898)

in moments of harmony and peace, we are actually quite blind to the Real. there is nothing that would disrupt our efforts and our immersion in the habits and traditions of the culturally inherited world by which we are. precisely because reality is harmonious, one is led even deeper into harmony itself, lost in its seeming obviousness and inevitability. everything we are is given in that harmony and nothing seems external or limited by the Real which benevolently shelters us from the need for thought or introspection.

knowledge arises precisely as things break down, in dischord and disharmony. at the point where one becomes disjointed and pulled out of the comfort of oblivious obviousness. suddenly the world appears in its objectivity; the world appears as something fashioned and made and thus susceptible to fracture. after the appearance of the first false note, even if the harmony is regained it can never again be the same, since now even the harmony itself is revealed to be an artifact: something crafted by human pursuits and practices. harmony and disharmony become thematic concerns for the self as one struggles to make sense. and the natural-harmony shows itself false insofar as it blinded its inhabitants to their rational and free natures.

this is why the prophet can never have a home, because the prophet is the one who stands in the moment of freedom and reveals the naturalness of the harmony, upon which They so strongly insist, to be nothing more than the blindness of animal instinct and barbarism. even harmony, insists the prophet, must be made one's own in a moment of lucid rationality that sees through to the Truth-in-which-humanity-itself-is-a-participant: a moment that will transform oneself and the Real to its core. broken, the prophet will be hated by those who think themselves healthy; and the one who is sighted will be despised by the blind.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

nostalgia (a reflection on irving berlin's white christmas)

"Irving Berlin's White Christmas" (1954)

we watched irving berlin's classic 1954 film, White Christmas, today on the big screen. it was a delightful experience: the theatre was packed; there were many families there with their kids; and many of those kids, even in their early teens, had never seen the movie before. they laughed at the melodramatic acting, the dance sequences, and often applauded at the end of musical numbers. the whole audience applauded at the end of the movie. and that includes me; i love White Christmas. it is sappy and, to borrow a word from the movie, schmaltzy, but it really doesn't matter; i have to watch it at least once during the season or the year just is not complete.

but something struck me this time that i had not really given a great deal of thought before. the film is a nostalgia-piece. but what is berlin nostalgic for? there remains, today, a large segment of the american population which looks longingly to the 1950's itself as an idyllic age, before the sexual revolution really took hold, before the country lost it's innocence in viet nam, before stonewall, before no-fault divorce destroyed the american family, before the kennedys were murdered, before watergate, and one can go on and on. the 1950's are the "good ole' days". but berlin's film is itself set in the 1950's and he is very clearly already nostalgic for something lost.

this shows up at several points throughout the film. the song and dance number entitled "choreography" mocks the changes that had taken place and the innovations of modern dance. several other numbers recall vaudeville style shows and another large number explicitly harkens back to the "minstrel shows" of the previous generation. but the nostalgia is not simply expressed with respect to the arts; of course artistic and social changes go hand-in-hand. the movie dwells on the theme of the ambition of younger women and how it serves as a destablizing social influence as they pursue careers, refusing to settle down and get married as they used to do. the wacs are praised extensively in another musical number for their dedicated entertainment of the men-folk in a time of war, and care is taken to remind everyone what a great job it was because it was so easy to find a husband.

berlin is nostalgic, then, for the values of the era that predated world war 2. he longs for a return to the glory days of what some have referred to as "the greatest generation". before the war changed everything: snatched youth away from so many young men, snatched women out of their appointed roles and into the work force, turned the world into a place where "everyone has an angle" (the self-interested nature of modern life is also a running theme). and this raises an interesting point. the norman-rockwell-1950's-idealized-americana that remains the dream of many (euphemized under the term "family values") is already a false hope according to berlin. the 1940's had introduced technological and economic innovations that would change the social structure of liberal society irrevocably. the nostalgia for the 1950's is nostalgia for an era that is already itself nostalgic (White Christmas was the top money maker for 1954). one cannot rush back to eden when the supposed-eden has itself, at least according to berlin, already fallen.

the fact is that nostalgia can never reach back far enough to fulfill its desire: to abdicate one's freedom, one's responsibility towards the Future. it is not just an emotion or a whistful feeling, nostalgia represents a fundamental intentionality that one possesses towards the world - one which frees us from responsibility and decision. one no longer needs to make a decision, one no longer needs one's freedom, the decisions were made for us in a previous time. we need simply repeat them anew.

of course nostalgia is undermined by its own desire because it is itself a decision: a free attempt to annul one's freedom, a hope against-hope; it denies faith in History by projecting an anti-Future as the Truth-which-is-our-Future. the dream of a white christmas is the dream about the past; nostalgia longs for that which is dead, instead of turning in hope towards new life.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

when the cold lays siege

Raymond Han, "Studio Still Life #4" (2006)

standing by the car at 3am you left a note of war
in the snow that had fallen for two days straight
the cold laying siege and putting us all in the mood
for blood-letting

you stated a refusal: you would no longer feel
i corrected it
…no longer feel anything other than anger
which made you hate all the more, but being right was my only defense

and what were these wars we fought as the cold laid siege:
over hands that touched me
lies that had been told me
violences that played themselves out on my flesh

wars that had all been fought over my body before
and so were nothing new
i knew the dance of this conflict, had laid down my armor many times in surrender
its rhythm was not unique, its cuts were always mortal

there is no defense for this when the cold lays siege
you shed my blood because it is the only way you can feel
i shed my blood because it keeps me from feeling
and i know that there is no winning this war


Monday, December 18, 2006

reflections on being lost

[dedicated to alaleh, baraka, koonj, path2hope and all those others who have that feeling of homelessness]

Umm Aisha, "Grief, Anxiety and Sadness" (2005)

On 20 December 1983 my family was on vacation. It was, in a sense, an odd vacation, and no doubt my parents did not think of it as such, but for me...well, I am a victim of that uniquely modern, liberal and capitalistic phenomenon which Heidegger identifies as homelessness – a failure indicative of a spreading Americanism as far as he was concerned. Homelessness: to be without roots, and thus lost. We had gone home for Christmas after spending the better part of the year abroad in Saudi Arabia. I slept on my grandmother's couch and read Cosmo in the dim light of an old lamp while others slept: issue after issue with absolute fascination: an exposure to something exotic and new.

My parents have always been sure where home was. And they returned there as quickly as possible. Trips there were not vacations, they were returns from exile. But for me, it was never so.

But one wonders if there is not a virtue to homelessness, despite what Heidegger might say. On 20 December 1983 Donald Rumsfeld was shaking the hand of Saddam Hussein. Despite my most cynical moments I do not truly operate under the illusion that Mr. Rumsfeld thought of Hussein as a real ally. I doubt anyone was under any misperception of how reprehensible the leader of the Iraqi Ba'ath party was. But Mr. Rumsfeld knew quite clearly where home was, and this was not it. But he could use Iraq to the interests of his home. When you know where home is, everything outside the door becomes "barbarian" to a greater or lesser degree, and what more can you expect of barbarians than brutality and violence. If Mr. Rumsfeld could, by shaking this hand, aim this particular barbarian at Iran, then that would, by the basic calculus performed by those back at home, be useful. 'Let them kill themselves and we will gladly give them the encouragement and means to do it.' And when the barbarian lord became unruly and was no longer able to be controlled or directed at the right enemy, no longer killed the right people, he could be removed.

I am homeless to Heidegger because I do not unequivocally know where home is. I failed to fully develop the appropriate loyalties; I was not able to draw the distinction, so important to Mr. Rumsfeld's little outing on 20 December 1983, between we-who-are-civilized and they-who-are-barbarians, and so instead I found myself a guest in my grandmother's house no less than I was a guest in Saudi Arabia. I was invited to share Christmas with her much as I had been invited to share in the wonderful nights of Ramadan with my friends in Saudi. There would no longer be a cultural door which I could step through and be finally and decisively at home, though I found myself warmly embraced by many as their guest and neighbor. I have committed that sin, so unforgivable, not only to Rumsfeld but also to Heidegger, of being at home with my homelessness.


Saturday, December 16, 2006


Christopher Cousins, "Dark Matter" (2004)

there is your body
the mass: the horror of weight
and there is
the dark: the comfort of weight

i did not need and did not ask for this
this is not what i was promised
the tangle
of lies and madness
the shaping of self so that i could
hide in the dark


standing outside the mosque in lahore: the modesty of edwin lord weeks

Jean-Leon Gerome, "The Dance of the Almeh" (1863)

First Delacroix and then his protege, Jean-Leon Gerome, had set the standard for orientalism in the first two thirds of the nineteenth century. What had begun as curious perusals of Arabians and Indians (both Asian and American) in Delacroix, had been elevated to the level of masterpiece size interpretations of Arabia. It was thus no surprise that as the French and English political bodies delved more deeply into this unknown world, painters, fascinated by the stories and colors of the orient turned to Gerome, not only for instruction and guidance but, as the rule by which to judge their own achievements.

And Gerome was indeed a challenge to live up to. Arabia opened up to him and he rendered that Arabia from vantages that had never been seen before: portraying private worship (especially a number of Cairo scenes) both in and outside mosques, the interior of royal courts, and topping Delacroix's lonely odalisques, Gerome was granted entry into the sanctuary of the harem and the baths. These scenes were alive with color and charged with barely contained energy and sexuality. Gerome's Arabia was an exotic and erotic playground for the European imagination. Even as Rousseau had argued for the beauty of a more natural world a generation before, Gerome was portraying the European vision of what nature would look like, absent the civilizing impulse.

Jean-Leon Gerome, "Whirling Dervishes" (1895)

This visual claim to have laid the Arabian world bare was a key element of Gerome's success. But it was largely a lie. As i have argued before, Gerome does not really grasp Arabia as a whole, but instead divides it into easily consumeable bits, isolated realities that lack a historical or social context. This trend would be followed by the next generation in painters such as Mowbray who unabashedly lays out the orient as a fantasy world lacking depth.

Henry Siddon Mowbray, "Oriental Fantasy" (1887)

The Bostonian, Edwin Weeks, was also among those who sought to learn about the orient and its portrayal from Gerome, but a painter can only learn so much sitting in the studio. So after a time with Gerome and Gerome's close friend Leon Bonnat, Weeks and his new wife decided to venture into Arabia, beginning with Morocco in 1878-79. Weeks rapidly realized they had entered a place which "Gerome had never rendered": confronted by disease (his own and others), famine and hostility, Weeks' work would never be the same.

Edwin Lord Weeks, "The Gate of Shehal, Morocco" (1880)

There is something about Weeks' body of work which reveals that he understood he could not lay bare this world to which he was so totally a foreigner. It begins with the modesty with which he described his work. He was a colorist, not an orientalist. He was not someone who could expose the orient to the viewer no matter how long he travelled there (and he did spend a good deal of the remaining twenty years of his life traveling through Persia and colonial India). He demonstrates this both positively, through his chosen subjects and negatively, by what remains unpainted.

Edwin Lord Weeks, "Open-Air Restaurant, Lahore" (1889)

On the one hand, Weeks generally approached his oriental subjects from the exterior. Weeks has market scenes reminiscent of Gerome's time in Cairo, but also palaces that are viewed from their courtyards, or from outside their walls, and heads of state, but only as they travel through the city. This self-enforced vantage point can be seen in two of Weeks' paintings of the mosque at Lahore. In the first, "Riders in front of the Mosque in Lahore" there is a gathering of men around the steps of the mosque. They are immersed in conversation, some of them moving either into or out of the mosque itself, others sitting in the sun and of course the gathering of riders. The European viewer toward whom the painting is directed is not granted the intimacy of entering this circle; one is neither included nor given clues about what the gathering portends. One is outside, not only the circle of men but the world itself. The mosque towers above, leaving the top edge of the canvas in a manner that suggests its overwhelming character. In the second painting, "An Open-Air Restaurant, Lahore", Weeks places the viewer in a more accessible setting. The need for food, cooking and selling, are all realities the viewer can make sense of, but once again, the mosque still looms in the background. Weeks emphasizes that even with the help of greater perspective, a touch-point in something recognizeable, the mosque, and all it symbolizes, is still uncontainable by his gaze, and it once again overwhelms the viewer in its majesty. One cannot completely grasp the world one has entered here, and Weeks refuses to provide the illusion that one can.

Edwin Lord Weeks, "The Interior of the Mosque at Cordova" (1889)

The exceptions to this general practice by Weeks only confirm this idea. Weeks' great mosque interior, which shows men at prayer, is "The Interior of the Mosque at Cordova". Here a few things must be pointed out. First, Weeks chooses to render the interior of a mosque that is on European soil. And while the painting is historical in its content, the title is minimalist. Weeks uses the title to call attention only the mosque interior, reminding the viewer of the history of the building now known in another form. His historical renderings of the Moorish period in Spain, of which the mosque at Cordova is a part, show him willing to enter into hypothesis concerning the interior of Muslim life only at the point in which that life overlapped with European history. And there is no better icon of that overlap than the mosque at Cordova as his viewers would have well known. The historical scenes he renders must be set between the 10th and 11th centuries for once the Christians re-occupied Cordova, the mosque itself was transformed into the city cathedral. Moreover, when need for a larger cathedral arose, they built a magnificient gothic structure that rose dramatically out of the center of the mosque, melding Christian and Muslim architecture and history together in a unique manner. Here is a place, if there is such a place, says Weeks, where one can enter into a mutual understanding with Islam because Europeans share in this moment as a piece of their own history. There is a part of this story he has the tools to understand and render.

This brings us to the final point concerning Weeks' modesty. Unlike Gerome's work, Weeks' is striking in the lack of harems, baths, prostitutes, courtesans, and even the interior of royal courts with the fanciful animals that Gerome portrayed. This cannot be attributed to lack of access. As Weeks notes, the Muslim world was so open and friendly to his arrival in northern colonial India that he had to flee his friends in order to get work done. They showered him with models (human and animal) to paint at his request, to the point where it was necessary to hide to get them sketched and painted. Weeks' decision then is a conscious one. The drama of the private lives of the men and women of the orient were, once again, mysterious to him - not in the manner of being something fantastic, but in the sense of having their own ethic and language in which he could not pretend to be fluent. These were pieces of a puzzle that Gerome had been content to take individually, but which Weeks recognized as part of a whole which he, as yet, could not see. Their lives were not the stuff of European exoticism, but had a reality and depth that Weeks did not know how to penetrate and about which he refused to lie. As he expresses again and again in his paintings, Weeks knew he was standing at the exterior and that the exteriority must remain; there had to be modesty, if there was ever to be a real intimacy of understanding.


Edwin Lord Weeks, "Riders in front of the Mosque at Lahore" (1889)

Friday, December 15, 2006

the struggle, part 6

Felice Sharp, "Markers" (2006) [mixed media on board]

faith is the belief that in and through human activity something more gives itself; a commitment to the idea that there will be a fullness of Truth; that this fullness is the implicit promise carried in the experience of meaning (this is what makes faith a rational hope). it is faith precisely because this fullness is not-yet. thus the object of faith is the Truth-which-is-our-Future.

the claim of faith: out of the Old the New will impossibly emerge.

Truth is not something that simply is. Truth is not a collection of facts. Truth presents itself in and through human activity and because of this one never simply has the Truth. it is instead encountered in the various ways in which human beings examine the question of meaning, and so it is presented with all the partiality and brokenness of humanity. this is the origin of the struggle: humanity's constant attempts to come to the fullness of meaning, the Whole, that is promised in all they do. Truth is not held in the past, nor does it exist as a timeless present as if it were an already fulfilled reality. Truth is the Future which must be realized. This is why History is Truth. we experience Truth as that which is about to come.

hegel claimed that the True was the Whole. adorno countered this with the claim that the Whole is the False. but these two claims are not in conflict with one another. for hegel, Truth could only be known from the standpoint of the fullness of History. adorno reminds us that in the midst of History all claims to possess such knowledge already are occult. claims to grasp what that might be, or to insist that one knows the plan or practice by which progress toward Reconciliation might be certainly achieved is the height of >undialectical= or >uncritical= thinking. it can only serve the interest of whatever totem is raised as a banner of salvation, shutting humanity off from any hope for the Future. today Truth is crucified and broken, and thus all claims to Wholeness, Holiness, Peace or Reconciliation are ideology and mystification. adorno is the truth of hegel as seen in the middle of History.

in the present all writing must make clear that it is an exercise in productive failure.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Robert Ryman, Untitled (1965)

When Levinas argues in his early essay, “On Escape”, that human desire is not a sign of lack, he seems to be making a radical break with the tradition, both theological and philosophical. The insufficiency of what we have and the need for more, something that could satisfy it, had been a crucial aspect of philosophical theology from Augustine to Maimonides to al-Farabi. We move, are driven by desire, because we want something. But Levinas is not really making as radical a break as it might seem, for what Levinas is here arguing is that humanity does not find its end in itself. When one searches within the given being of human existence one is always left unsatisfied; our natures mock us, hang about us like a weight, keeping us riveted to our own dis-satifaction. While other finite natures find their fulfillment in their own natural capacities, this is untrue of humanity. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, pens gotta write, but humanity must ....nothing. It is not, then, that there is something we lack, instead we need to get out of the very thing we have, indeed we need to escape all having. The erotic drive is the unquenchable desire for transcendence. So when Levinas tells us that there is a disquiet at the heart of humanity that manifests itself naturally as the desire for escape, he is saying humanity cannot be content in its own finitude. Humanity is incapable of achieving its own happiness, and so will be content with nothing less than a breakthrough that it is incapable of bringing about on its own. Here in fact Levinas is advocating a position that can be found throughout the Platonic tradition. Desire can only be satisfied by the Good which is beyond all being and every nature. We are only truly ourselves in ecstasy, that is to say, quite literally, in going-out of ourselves.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

i am marie antoinette

here i sit in my castle, the world a disordered mess. we like to pretend that we are just ordinary folk, "middle class", as if the privelege of being the bougeoisie were indeed normal. but i am not really that confused. the truth is that we are the aristocracy, floating above it all until the masses decide they have had enough. there will be another french revolution and i will be found guilty. ought i to "give away all [i] have to the poor" so i might be poor too? no, the game of 'voluntary poverty' is the manner by which those who are wealthy go out to mock the poor in the very homes and streets in which they struggle to make lives. the poor do not want more poverty, they want justice. since they cannot have justice they will take us to the guillotine instead: treason against humanity. guilty? oh indeed guilty. but here i sit in my castle, the world a disordered mess. what else do i have to give them: "let them eat cake".


faith (an engagement with karl barth's cd i/1 §1.3)

faith and hope point beyond the present moment and thereby recognize that the Truth is not yet realized in its wholeness. thus faith is the orientation of one’s action towards the Truth-which-is-our-Future. our lives must be lived out of that engagement with the Truth. and yet, just as Truth is not some past event, something given as a fact and possessed to be used as a tool, neither is faith something we can have as our own for it is only given as Truth gives itself in freedom. faith, then, is the event in which humanity is made the mediation of the Truth-which-is-its-Future. this must be insisted against every humanism. because there is nothing which humanity does not receive as gift, one can hardly talk of the Future as the highest impulse of human self-realization. of itself, humanity is nothing and humanism is nihilism: the empty pride of insisting on our own being. the Truth cannot be realized as something that humanity possesses, but as that which claims all of humanity as its own. no method can master the Truth in its free character as event. it is never ours, but takes us as its own by the gift of faith.


Friday, December 8, 2006

the struggle, part 5 (fallen)

Marten Valkenborch, "The Tower of Babel" (16th c.)

everywhere we seek reconciliation and find only alienation.

there is only the one sin: to insist that 'I am'. everything else is its symptom.

we do not live in the land of Truth, but we are haunted by it. Truth slips between the shadows of the trees in the night, we hear its sound on the wind, see its footprints in the morning dew. By day it threatens, dancing like a fire among the branches, never revealing itself, but frightening us just the same. we worry that it will come for us: we who banished it. we worry it will pierce us to the heart.

we have built our tower; it stretches to heaven. we named its walls Eternity, and on its foundation engraved the word Nature. let Ramses look upon it and despair.

in babel, we speak only one language; by law every sentence must include the word "I".

History is Truth.


Thursday, December 7, 2006

notes on elizabeth nourse's arabia (the mosque at tunis)

Elizabeth Nourse, "The Mosque, Tunis" (1897)

It is widely observed that Elizabeth Nourse's portrayal of women in real social settings marked a break with her contemporaries, especially men such as, her mentor, Jules Joseph Lefebvre. In Lefebvre aestheticism combined with the male gaze to produce abstract portraits of mostly nude women, absent any setting, without meaning, emptied of their content and of their very person. This allowed the female form to be taken in solely as an object of pleasure. Nourse's women, on the other hand, usually existed in household scenes, often with their children, in a manner that resisted the easy reification of the female body for the male viewer because they were embedded within social narratives that affirmed their vitality and humanity.

Jules Joseph Lefebvre, "Girl with a Mandolin" (late 19th c.)

I would like to suggest that we should read Nourse's "The Mosque, Tunis" in a similar fashion, once again against the tendency of the Orientalist tradition of most of her colleagues. If one takes her near contemporary Gerôme as an example one quickly sees the extremely dis-integrated vision of Arabia that he possesses. Apart from his fantasies of the Oriental harems and a few pictures of prostitutes, Gerôme's Arabia is nearly absent of women, revealing the extent to which the Orient was a playground for the European male's imagination of exotic and rampant sexuality. There are likewise portraits of isolated men: guards, merchants, traders, soldiers, or rulers. And finally there are a set of paintings that focus on Islamic prayer. These are particularly noteworthy relative to our theme as one compares Gerôme's vision to that of Nourse. Gerôme's pictures are either tightly framed or enclosed within the interior of the mosque which provides a backdrop to emphasize the alien nature of the event to the European viewer. He fails to make any connection between these religious acts and any other aspect of the society which he is "realistically" portraying, just as he fails to integrate the persons, both male and female, into their society. These are isolated objects, commodified persons and events packaged for easy consumption and playing to the tastes and expectations of the viewer.

Jean-Léon Gerôme, "The Call to Prayer" (1866)

Nourse's painting operates at a much different and more ambitious level than any thing Gerôme dared attempt. She encompasses a much fuller breadth of Islamic society within one vision and likewise understands the direction or goal that provides the interior dynamic to social life. A large group of people are portrayed going about a variety of tasks, men and women, spread throughout the square, walking to different parts of the city, as the larger city looms behind the market. Over it all, the mosque draws one's focus from the market higher toward that which stands at the center and pinnacle of the social and political life of its inhabitants and defines the rhythms of their day.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1953)

And just as she produces a picture of an integrated society, she also integrates her use of color into the overall purpose of the painting. One is led upward from the darkness of the lower corner to the height of light. The painting is essentially organized into three fields of color. The lower right corner ranges from very dark to earth tones (this placement of the market within shadow is itself possibly a bit of critique). The top third is a gray-blue sky that extends as one long band. Finally one is led by the light strip at the far left out of the dark shadows of the market upwards through the city until the dome of the mosque pierces through the gray and into transcendence over everything else. The transcendence of the mosque is only emphasized by what might count as a fourth field of color, the small band of pink stone that secures the preeminence of the mosque over all else. In this way, while the concrete content of the painting provides the panorama of an integrated world, it is the use of color itself that provides the narrative direction. Here, Nourse anticipates not only the social realist movement (for which she is often given credit in her paintings of women), but in her use of vast fields of color to invoke the movement towards transcendence she likewise anticipates later abstract expressionists such as Rothko.


Elizabeth Nourse, "The Sewing Lesson" (1895)

the whispered words of catherine of france to henry v, king of england, upon the night of their wedding, 1420

"The Marriage of Henry V and Catherine of France", from Chroniques de France ou de Saint Denis (1487)

when i shed blood i am hidden away
private, meditating on the curse of eve.
i step out only when the blood is past
bathing myself on the rooftop
and i am clean.

you spill blood in public
sword in hand, cursing your enemies;
armies obey your command, and die at your command;
satisfied only when your arms are red to the pits for all to see.
in whose bath will you ever come clean?


Tuesday, December 5, 2006


where can one stand in order to ask, in an assertion of one’s own freedom, will i or will i not believe in god, as if god could be freely chosen? there is no outside or beyond when it comes to god; no neutral or objective standpoint. one cannot choose god. instead one is chosen. this having-been-chosen is the truth which no one can escape; there is only the active affirmation or refusal of this call.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

no wonder...

friday afternoon, She got off work a bit earlier than normal and so dinner was not quite ready when she got home (more to the point, our second-turkey of the season still needed to baste for another half hour). so She went upstairs, changed clothes and grabbed a book. She sat in the afternoon sun in a chair by the window and began to read. i brought her something to drink and a small plate of cheese and crackers to tide her over until dinner was ready (otherwise She has a tendency to take a jar of peanut butter, a spoon, and ruin her dinner; and i didn't just spend all afternoon on a SECOND turkey for that!). contented, She disappeared into her book and was hardly heard from again until dinner was on the table.

as She sat down and began to eat the hot meal, fresh from the oven, She says:

"now i understand why men didn't want to give this up."


Saturday, December 2, 2006

there is no 'hors liberalisme et capitalisme': the radical status quo of derrida

Ford Maddox Brown, "Work" (1865)

It is now more widely accepted that Derrida's philosophy was always deeply political, even if this was not an explicit theme of his writings at the earliest stages. The (non-)concept of différance, for instance, was a strategic intervention into the account of reason and its realization as existence designed to protect difference from those who might want to find some final solution by means of which differences could be resolved and thereby achieve some account of Truth. Différance, a Derridean neologism, is designed to play on the double meaning of differe, to differentiate and to defer, by creating the present participle. Différance is meant to refer to both meanings at once by invoking this participle form, and thereby indicate the fracturing that produces existence in all its differences through space and time.

Thus it is a quasi-transcendental description of the conditions of the possibility of difference. Without in any way suggesting that there was once a whole or Unity that is now being divided or differenced in some way, one must say that existence only is in this differentiated relationship, i.e, it is mediated. On the one hand there is differentiation, spacing, while on the other differences occur as deferral, temporality. Since one can only know something through its relationships in space and time, the object of knowledge is constantly being supplemented. Knowledge of the original, or more importantly to Derrida, of the Origin of meaning itself, is not possible, because it never arrives in fullness. There is always more to come. Thus instead of an origin, one finds 'originary difference': an instability at the heart of existence that constantly keeps things in motion and never allows one to rest. This is, in effect history. "If the word 'history' did not in and of itself convey the motif of a final repression of difference, one could say that only differences can be 'historical' from the outset and in each of their aspects."

This is by no means a neutral or apolitical description of (human) existence, but instead one that celebrates differences as free play and sees that play as hopeful for the future. To put it in other terms, the ontological description of difference is at the same time a call, by Derrida, for a kind of radical liberalization of the social order. The irreducibility of differences, including human inter-personal differences, means that, in the tradition of liberalism, there is a fundamental integrity to the individual that cannot be undermined. Invoking the rights tradition, he identifies a certain sovereignty that arises from the fact that every other is dependent upon every other such that no one can achieve domination. Thus Derrida himself understands deconstruction to be the continuation of a pursuit of emancipation, one of the great themes of the Enlightenment. Difference is ontologically rooted in such a way that no violence can hope to overcome it, suppress it and by no means could it be brought to an end.

Moreover this political theme is also linked to political economy when one remembers that another interpretation of the quasi-transcendental is 'originary exchange' in Specters of Marx. There Derrida argues against Marx that there is no use value and that commodification is an irreducible reality. Everything is subject to the judgment of the exchange relation. To paraphrase one of the very earliest Derridean statements, the implications of which were always the same: "There is no hors capitalisme". And so, in Derrida liberalism and capitalism are united into the whole they have always been in the Enlightenment tradition.


Friday, December 1, 2006


Odd Nerdrum, "Man in Boat" (2003)

the dialectic turns beyond true and the false, the yes and the no, being and non-being, good and evil, morals and ethics, law and freedom, freedom and necessity, reason and unreason, civilization and culture, barbarian and greek, gentile and jew, muslim and kufr, orthodoxy and heresy, burgher and proletarian, male and female, Geist and matter, idealism and materialism, fact and value, form and content, alpha and omega, beginning and end, first and last, election and damnation, hope and despair, one and many, beyond either/or until it arrives at...