Wednesday, August 1, 2007

moved by a moment in the Senate

I don't really have anything sophisticated or intelligent to say about this moment

I do think it encapsulates perfectly the seam of tension running through American public life: it is both beautiful and maddening. The man offering the prayer reflects on his experience in this Washington Post discussion forum.

I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I am occasionally moved by public spectacles of nationhood and political community (Arlington Cemetery comes to mind most often). Every so often I dimly glimpse something luminous and profound hiding underneath the garish rot of the American power machine. It has that same elusive quality of the communal bond of family...that feeling that makes you say: yes, while its true I cannot stand you most of the time, I can't really bear to live with out you, and for better or worse we are in this together.

I have this same feeling watching Rajan Zed trying, in the face Christian protesters, to offer a Sanskrit invocation in the Senate. His expression betrayed a moment of hurt and surprise while he tried to maintain his equanimity against the protesters' disrepect, and for a moment I felt deeply, fiercely, protectively, American, and grateful to the authority of that room in its defense of his right to be there and to say the words he said.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

response to alex and karl

My friends Karl Smith and Alex Kim are two very smart, thoughtful people, who share a blog called a A Civil Union that is dear to my heart:

They had a debate recently about the pope, abortion, and Catholic American legislators that is worth reading. It prompted me to think some thoughts in a slightly different direction...

I find myself compelled to ask a question of deep heresy (it is my duty as an anthropologist): in our society's hierarchy of authority-sources, the one authority-source that is never questioned, or at least is always nominally deferred to, even by Americans of a completely non-compartmentalized sort of faith, is the Constitution itself. Its seems to inspire a certain religious reverence in the American population that I find surprising. The Constitution is that against which we measure everything else for civil soundness, even when we can't agree on what it even says.

Why is this I wonder? How did this piece of paper acquire such mana? The contents are questioned and argued - but the authority it holds is revered as if it is sacred.

I suspect that the answer is much more than just its association with our founding myth (creation-story) and technologies of citizen-formation required of our imagined community. I think it has something to do with a cultural model of authority, rooted in submerged cosmologies of religious conviction and sensibility in the western traditions of empire. Our faith in the Constitution is downright monotheistic, but we don't know how to think about it otherwise. Alternatives are beyond the edges of reasonable thought.

I know this presupposes an ontological kinship between political being and religious being - but its a presupposition that stands, in my experience.

Friday, May 11, 2007

my soul is a gibbon

The subtlest sacred secular story for kids in print is soon to be transferred to celluloid...a gloriously inventive reworking of Miltonic heresy. And of course I have succumbed to the marketing hype, and therefore now have a daemon, named Philon.

Apparently, friends can dispute the self-assessment that got me my daemon. I'm not sure where they got "modest" from.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

actor network theory

Sigh. This feminist anthropology class would be making a lot more sense if they'd assigned anything by Latour or Law in the first week. There is quite a bit of assumed knowledge about actor network theory and the agency (not presuming intentionality) of non-humans. I get the non-human agency thing, I think, but I need more. There is something big here, that a lot of people around me know, that I don't (always crazy making). And Wikipedia's not helping. Sigh.

There is a remote possibility this blog will turn into a vehicle for bitching about grad school....

Saturday, April 21, 2007

late night procrastinating

You know you are in grad school when it is Saturday night and you decide to set up a blog about religion and politics to avoid having to post a required essay on ecological revolutions in 17th century New England for your feminist anthropology class. I still have to post the essay sometime tonight (there's nothing about nature, gender, and science I don't love), but I've decided to take a break to type out some of my recent reflections on my long-term project. I've decided, in other words, to insert my torment into the public sphere.

I had a stimulating argument with my polisci guy over dinner tonight, as we thrashed out some of our disagreements about the merits and dangers of compartmentalizing religious experience from social and political life.

All my thoughts on this subject are informed by my current struggle with Talal Asad's anthropology of secularism, and his contention that secularism is in no way a neutral, enlightened way to keep peace in a pluralistic society, because of its genealogical roots in European Christianity. There is something in the architecture of a secular society that assumes the religious subjectivities involved are Christian, and can therefore lend themselves to compartmentalization, in a way that members of other religious traditions, in this case Muslims, cannot. Asad's argument is incredibly complex, and rooted in some not very obvious readings of European and Christian history and culture (not to mention Islamic history and culture) and it will take me a long time to fully work it all out. I have some difficulty with some of the monolithic discourses he reproduces, but I suspect this may be an effect of my own shallow reading.

Nonetheless, Asad has been on my mind as I've been thinking about the Constitutional call for separations of "Church and state" (hmmm...maybe something is being presumed in this formulation after all), contrasting with the painfully nominal religiosity required of national level politicians in the U.S., and the bigoted disdain for earnest expressions of faith harbored by self-described "secularists", and the deeply problematic exclusivity of monotheistic truth-claims.

Does religious freedom require self-silencing? There is a presumption that speaking to others outside your spiritual community about deeply felt experiences of faith will some how incite violence, giving the conflicting truth-claims prevalent in a pluralist society, and that the safest way to go about keeping to the peace is to keep quiet. If I apply that logic to, say, an intimate relationship, where we keep the peace by repressing essential aspects of our being and identity, I only see a failure to communicate that will ultimately end the relationship. Far too many people in the world experience spirituality in a way that encompasses every aspect of their lives, and I would dare to say that doesn't need to be a source of fear for those who don't share their beliefs. At the risk of sounding sentimental about citizenship and the nation-state, I'm inclined to think that the more we view fellow citizens as intimate partners, the more we learn to inhabit the mental worlds of fellow American Muslims, Jews, atheists, evangelical Christians, Hindus, scientific rationalists, Buddhists and animists (to name just a few followers of faith communities), and the more spiritual matters can be discussed in an unscripted manner in public (usually political) discourse, the better chance we have of actually implementing policies that don't privilege majority sensibilities and beliefs over minorities... . There is no way we can empathize with others without dialogically opening ourselves up to the reality they experience, and vice versa. And, from my anthropoligical perspective, the best public policies emerge out of cultures of earnest engagement, and difference is negotiated through empathy.

As my polisci guy says, I would indeed make a lousy politician. Back to the animals...