Archive for November, 2009

Of note: Frontier Orthodoxy

Fr. Oliver Herbel has a new column called Frontier Orthodoxy which looks like it has the potential to be of great interest. There are two posts up now, and my understanding is that he intends it to be a bi-monthly column. That Fr. Oliver reveals in his introductory essay that he is a fencer already means that this is going to be worth watching.

New release from Cappella Romana: The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides

I don’t have my review copy yet (it is on the way), but be aware that this is now available; I’m looking forward to giving it a listen.

(UPDATE, 25 Nov. 8:53am MST: The sound samples the “Post to WordPress” button on my toolbar picked up were for the Toensing Kontakion of the Nativity, not the Michaelides. I think I’ve fixed this. I also added a link to the Cappella Romana site so that people can, y’know, actually buy it. Dangers of blogging when still tired from travelling…)

Vodpod videos no longer available.
more about “Cappella Romana“, posted with vodpod


This sounds familiar somehow…

Ensemble Organum, singing the Introit for the Midnight Mass of Christmas Day, “Dominus dixit ad me” (Ps. 2:7,1). From the recording Chant de l’Eglise de Rome (VIe – XIIIe Siècles). Old Roman Chant (perhaps c. 6th century) from an 11th century manuscript. (Consider my hat tipped to The New Liturgical Movement.)

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “This sounds familiar somehow…“, posted with vodpod


Ochlophobist on the dilemma of being “young, male, and Orthodox”

Owen made the following comment on a recent post:

There is a certain type of young man who generally pursues the priesthood. We dance around it, but in my mind it is unequivocally true. In Orthodoxy there are certain forms and postures that are, aesthetically speaking, humble, but which are easily practiced and replicated, and do not necessarily reveal the inner heart – soft, slightly effete voice, a way of walking in the cassock, a way of mentioning the contrary opinions of others and pleading one’s ignorance on matters even as it is quite clear you’ve got a strong opinion and you want it to be deemed the right one, a slightly affected, sentimentalish manner of being around icons, prayer ropes, the altar &nave, and so forth, a slightly affected manner of quoting sayings or hagiographic tidbits of the saints, etc. But beyond all that, you spend some time with the fellow and you realize that he loves and is naturally given to didacticism – here is a man who likes to be in a position of teaching others. It is also clear that he has a hunger to be in a position of spiritual authority over others. In my opinion, keeping in mind that opinions in Orthodoxy are worth as much as wax stains on nave carpets, a desire to teach in the Church and have spiritual authority over others is usually, but not always, instigated by demons.

Okay. We’re adults here; let’s not be coy and play dumb. We all know what he’s talking about, and we all know people who are more or less like this — assuming we ourselves don’t fit this description! I’m going to let Owen’s words speak for themselves, and I assume that he is savvy enough to know that he has just profiled a chunk of his readership (although I would be hard-pressed to say whether or not he would particularly care if he offended any of them).

So, neither adding nor subtracting nor commenting directly on the particulars Owen discusses, my question is, why are young men who tend to have these characteristics the ones who seem to be drawn to the priesthood like moths to flame? (Perhaps people can weigh in on whether or not the ordination-bound in other confessions/communions also behave this way.)

In the interest of full disclosure, the priesthood is something I feel reasonably certain to not be in God’s plan for me. This is not a conclusion I have reached lightly; in one form or another, the question of pastoral ministry was one that really troubled me, at least off and on, from my teenage years up to late twenties. During my time in Anglican circles, there were a couple of people who were really pushing me to consider seminary, and I think it was only the fact that I did not yet have an undergraduate degree that kept these individuals from forcibly sending me off to someplace like Trinity or Seabury (Nashotah House is not a place one hears about in the Pacific Northwest). Being an excitable young man, of course the question resurfaced for me as an Orthodox Christian, and immediately following my chrismation in February 2005 it seemed (as it does for so many of us) that surely seminary would be the logical next step for Somebody Like Me (particularly since that would make the matter of grad school much simpler). In the fall of 2005, I visited the St. Vladimir’s campus, fell in love… and then the whole issue just seemed to dissipate as a compelling force. It hasn’t resurfaced since. I sometimes wonder if the point was simply to bring me to a place where I would finally be willing to go that route, and then to redirect me elsewhere. At this stage of the game, I am no longer afraid of the priesthood (and haven’t been for awhile), but it seems more likely that, if I were to wind up at a place like St. Vlad’s, it would be as a member of the faculty (or potentially as a visiting student while I’m writing my dissertation) rather than as a candidate for priestly formation. As it is, I have a desire to teach, but not in the Church — at least not as a catechist. No, thank you. That’s not responsibility I care to have. Maybe I could help illuminate a couple of things here and there within my own area of expertise, maybe I could teach a chant lesson or two, but I’m not the person to entrust with forming the holiness of others.

Extending maximum charity to the type of gentleman Owen describes (particularly given that, for all I know, there could be people who read those words and think, “Yep, that’s Richard Barrett!”), what pushes this person onto the path of the priesthood and gives them such a desire for spiritual authority? I am not totally unwilling to discount the explanation of demons, but let us say I feel more at ease discussing what might be the concrete instruments of said demons than the demons themselves.

My favorite ’80s teenage rom-com is Say Anything… In a lot of ways, it’s really more properly considered a ’90s movie than an ’80s movie (it was released in 1989) — rather than somewhere in California, it takes place in a rather idealized and curiously rearranged Seattle four years before Meg Ryan would get from the 520 floating bridge to Sand Point in a matter of seconds (it takes twenty minutes to half an hour assuming no traffic, folks), it’s got Soundgarden and Joe Satriani on the soundtrack, it’s got John Mahoney as the problematic Seattleite father (prefiguring Frasier by about half a decade), and it’s got John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler, in what amounts to his first adult role. Young adult (the script goes out of its way to explain that Lloyd is graduating high school a year older than his classmates because of various familial matters), but he’s not fantasizing about dancing hamburgers at his fast food job anymore. One perhaps could argue that he starts the movie as a kid and finishes as an adult (cf. Lili Taylor telling him, “Don’t be a guy. The world is full of guys. Be a man“). More to the point, you can see Lloyd as potentially growing up to become Martin Blank (and I have occasionally wondered if Say Anything… wasn’t discussed, even if only in jest, as sort of a murky back story for Grosse Point Blank).

Anyway, Lloyd is a nice, if slightly off-center, guy. He wears a Fishbone t-shirt and a trenchoat. He’s a bit disconnected from his family, since his parents are in the military and stationed elsewhere, and he lives with his single-mom sister and her kid while he figures some things out. He’s not intelligent or obviously talented in conventional ways, he’s graduating high school a year late, he has no college plans, but what he does have are some very definite principles (“I don’t want to buy anything, sell anything, or process anything as a career”), and when he’s dedicated to something — like kickboxing, for example — he gives it his all. His guidance counselor buttonholes him at a party to try to persuade him to make some conventional decisions about his future, and he dismisses her advice, saying, “I’m looking for something bigger, you know? I’m looking for a dare-to-be-great situation.”

Let’s just imagine for a moment that Lloyd one day wandered into St. Nicholas Cathedral (ROCOR) in Seattle and found his dare-to-be-great situation there, giving it his all just like he did with kickboxing. I think he’d wind up a lot like the kind of young man Owen describes.

My point is this. I think there are a lot of smart guys with a genuine faith in and love for God, who want to give something the whole of their effort, who maybe just haven’t had the right — or at least the obvious — opportunity come their way and who at least know that there are some specific things they don’t want to do. Maybe they’ve had an interest in various aspects of the humanities and social sciences, enough to be broadly informed about a wide range of topics, but they’ve never had the discipline or the right setting to rise above being a dilettante, or at least an undergrad who shows some promise. Maybe they’ve had something of a taste of church service in another setting, enough so that they put on a cassock or some other kind of vestment and realize that they’re visibly part of something bigger when they do that. Maybe there are other circumstances in their life that make them determined to never do anything halfway, so that they never have to apologize for their own presence or participation.

And when these guys discover Orthodox Christianity, with all of history and all of its richness of faith and practice and all of its demands, with all of the ways it can order one’s life in the service of Christ, the various facets of their person which otherwise make it hard for them to fit in suddenly have a place, a context. They’ve discovered their dare-to-be-great situation. This is their life’s work, they just didn’t know it before. How can the priesthood, if not monasticism, not become a draw, the call that surely was always there if it could only have been perceived?

(By the way, unlike what I suppose about Owen, I care very much about offending people, so I really hope nobody thinks I’m saying this to mock or be critical. I have observed much of the above, yes, but much of it I have observed in myself. I cannot mock without mocking my own person first of all.)

I think what it often (perhaps not always) boils down to is that, for the young, male, zealous convert, it is not difficult to develop the desire to spend as much time in church as possible. Eventually, and naturally, this turns into the question — perhaps unconsciously — “If what I want to do is be in church all day, then wouldn’t a vocation just make sense?” Since there’s really only one way somebody can work for Orthodox Christianity in this country as one’s day-job, the direction becomes pretty clear from there.

Does it have to be this way? Maybe not, and I would hope that a seeming one-to-one ratio of zealot to cassock could be a reasonably short-lived phenomenon. (I say that as a cantor who wears a cassock.) The truth is, there is something that drives young men who behave as Owen outlines. If it might be healthier that not all of them get tonsured as readers the day after their chrismation and start teaching catechism after their second Divine Liturgy as a communicant, then there needs to be some active spiritual guidance about what to do with whatever it is that drives them. I have no doubt that for priests and bishops who have long lists of things to get done, young men with a lot of energy and desire to serve are hard to tell, “You need to sit back and chill for a while.” Still, it raises the question of whether or not the desire specifically to be the one serving in a visible, set-apart fashion can’t itself turn into a passion.

Ultimately, I think Owen is absolutely right from a descriptive standpoint. I’ve remarked before that there’s a certain self-consciousness of the American convert that we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with, and what Owen talks about is part and parcel of this self-consciousness. If there is a sort of contrived and constructed manner of holiness that has been assumed, then the answer is that we need more models of holiness that haven’t been contrived or constructed. Still, I think there are deeper reasons for why this occurs that we’re also going to have to figure out how to understand and deal with, and we will need to do so compassionately and productively.

Review: Fellow Workers With God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis by Norman Russell

I would like to note that I participated in what was originally going to be a group book review of Owen the Ochlophobist’s, but which ultimately because a review symposium hosted by Unmercenary Readers. We all read Norman Russell’s Fellow Workers With God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis, and the reviews are being posted this week. Mine is now up.

I had to get a bit tough with them; they tried to force me to use a pseudonym. I pointed out that article #8 of their own manifesto encourages, but expressly does not require, pseudonyms, but suggested “Vassilis Taraxopoios” if they had to use something (a literal translation of the meaning of “Richard Barrett” into Greek — “King Troublemaker”). They were somewhat abashed at having their own manifesto used against them and consequently left it up to me. I had always intended to run it under my own name, and said so. I will be curious to see if I am the only one who does so, and further curious to see if the exercise causes them to revise their manifesto.

Egeria Home Exchange is open for business!

It was an awesome idea eleven months ago. It’s still an awesome idea.

And it is up and running as of about five minutes ago. Go sign up. Now. I did.

CNN: Phoenix, AZ church fighting to feed the poor

This makes me very sad. Embedding the video doesn’t seem to work, so here’s the link.

More can be found here.

The central point from some of those in the neighborhood seems to be, “It’s okay for them to feed the poor as long as we don’t have to see it.” Sample quotes, from the body as well as the comments:

It’s great to offer help, but you have to look at the big picture… It’s very inappropriate to allow that kind of demographic to go there for one meal.

Would this person be happier if the church were busing the homeless in to be regular parishioners, I wonder? I’m going to guess not.

While the neighborhood strongly supports efforts to change the current paradigm that the homeless find themselves in, it’s important to find a holistic solution that can give them a hand up, rather than just a handout… The hope here is that the church will find it appropriate to spend its assets helping the homeless and not pursuing an appeal that could be characterized as an uphill battle. Their efforts here could be more appropriately used to help the homeless.

I just love the inversion of the problem here — the church will help the homeless more by not trying to help the homeless. If they continue in their misguided effort to help the poor, then they’ll actually be doing less than what they could be doing.

I feel that the church had been disingenuous in working with the neighborhood. They could have worked with other organizations to feed the homeless.

Translation: “As long as it doesn’t happen anywhere near someplace I might think about being and I don’t have to see what they’re doing and be disturbed in my comfortable, middle-class existence, then it’s fine with me. As soon as a poor person crosses my field of vision and takes my attention away from my nice flatscreen HDTV while I’m watching the game, however, then the church has crossed the line. Your right to feed the poor ends where my field of conceptualization begins.”

I think this church is an “in your face” kind of Christianity. If they really wanted to help the homeless they would do it near the down town [sic] area in which they congregate. But instead they try to force there [sic] well off [sic] neighbors to adhere to their way and their beliefs…kind of like the Taliban only without the guns and in a helpful way.

Riiiiiiight. When United Methodists are considered “in your face” for holding a pancake breakfast for freaking homeless people, then there can be no doubt we are not only in a post-Christian America, but rather in a post-humanity-means-diddly-squat-to-anybody America. United bloody Methodists like the frickin’ Taliban???????? Are we sure this isn’t The Onion? Oh, wait

I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ vision of hell in The Great Divorce as a place where people are constantly trying to get as far away from each other as possible.

Embracing paleostructuralism

It is late afternoon on Wednesday, and I have somehow managed to accomplish everything I needed to accomplish by this time. On Friday, this seemed like a goal that was unattainable, so I am reasonably pleased.

Somebody mentioned to me this last Saturday, “I occasionally read your rants against post-structuralism.” It had not been explicitly discussed in class that Foucault and company actually constitute an “-ism”, so I’m sure I was a deer in the headlights for a second while I figured out what my friend meant. Flesh of My Flesh has been explicitly exposed to more theory than I have, so I’ve been hearing about the supposed difference between signifier and signified for some time, but again, that this movement had a name was new information for me. A couple of things clicked once I understood the label; this is the same friend who a few years ago overheard me saying that it made no sense to me to read modern ideas of sexual equality and identity into texts for which those ideas would be anachronistic, and consequently chided me for “not believing in gender theory,” adding, “Applying theory is not ‘reading something into’ anything. That’s just you having an ideological problem.”

For all I know, maybe he’s right. He’s in the English department, and maybe there’s a way these things actually make sense from the standpoint of literature. Maybe, too, this is the difference between a “scholar” and an “intellectual” — I do not give a fat, furry, flying rat’s hindquarters about theory. I have not entered an academic discipline because I am interested in the “isms” which seem to plague the humanities right now. (I am told that “thing theory” was rather well-represented at last week’s Byzantine Studies Association of North America conference, which makes me want to tear out my own teeth with a rusty screwdriver.) I have entered an academic discipline, because, funny and naïve and idealistic as it may sound, I am actually interested in, and even like, my subject of study.

What does that make me? A paleostructuralist? If so, then so be it. (“Paleostructuralist” sounds cooler and more dignified than “anti-post-structuralist” anyway.)

I still have more to write on Foucault in this space, but it’s going to have to wait a bit yet while I finish some other things. In the meantime, my most recent (and last) response paper for my “Introduction to the Professional Study of History” course starts to sketch out some of the thoughts that will show up there. Certain elements will be no surprise to those who visit here somewhat regularly, there are a couple of moments where it will be evident that I just got through watching all of Christopher Nolan’s movies in chronological order (which merits its own post), and the couple of somewhat coy suggestions that certain things should be discussed elsewhere will be developed in my final paper for this course.

The Safe Retreat into Omniscient Third-Person:

The Problem of Historicizing Oneself


A Response to Kate Brown’s “A Place in Biography for Oneself”

(As Well as a Number of Other Bits and Pieces from the Fall 2009 H601 Course)

“Historians,” writes Kate Brown in her essay “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” “expose other people’s biographies, not their own.”[1] How can this be, however, when according to Marx, “[m]en make their own history” [2]? How, ultimately, may historians be their own agents of history while being true to their own profession? How might historians assume the first person voice in their own work, that is to say, our own work, or still more to the point, my own work – honestly?

To expand Marx’s quote, men make their own history, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.” Brown certainly did not choose her circumstances. She is from a small Midwestern town whose economic history could have stepped out of the pages of The Marx-Engels Reader; in her home town of Elgin, Illinois, as she tells it, the beginning of her life intersected with a narrative of Western expansion, labor strife, industry flight, economic redevelopment, and gentrification.[3] Her own retelling of the story gives significant credibility to Marx’s claim that “[t]he tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living”[4]:

From Elgin… I came to understand how closely one’s biography is linked to one’s place… I recognized the impulse to bulldoze and start over, to push on toward a brighter, cleaned-up destiny, which meant abandoning some places and people and losers of an unannounced contest.[5]

The past – that is to say, one’s history – and its relationship to location are a weight that one must learn to carry or learn to jettison. Perhaps this can be understood as an inversion of the opening line of Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides – rather than the wound being geography, the anchorage, the port of call, it is geography, and the confluence of circumstances that one encounters in that geography, that is the wound.

All well and good — but how real is this confluence of circumstances? How objectively may its existence be assumed? Per Benedict Anderson and his analysis of how seemingly disconnected events make up the front page of a newspaper, perhaps not much:

Why are these events so juxtaposed? What connects them to each other? Not sheer caprice. Yet obviously most of them happen independently, without the actors being aware of each other or of what the others are up to. The arbitrariness of their inclusion and juxtaposition… shows that the linkage between them is imagined.[6]

What, then, is the difference between one’s life and the front page of a newspaper? Do they both represent a constructed – that is to say, not objectively real – and affected way of arranging events? For the historian, how does that construction and that affectation influence how they read history, view history, and write history? How does understanding how one’s life interacts with one’s work impact either, for better or for worse?

As a scholar, I have been carefully trained to avoid using the first person in my work. “Don’t ever say things like ‘We can see the following…’ in your research,” I remember being told in one undergraduate course. “This is not a journey ‘we’re’ going on together. It’s a research paper.” My training in languages also tends to inform how I view texts – “Read what it says, not what you think it means,” my first Greek instructor repeatedly told our class. My research goal, therefore, is typically to state a clear, impersonal thesis and then get the hell out of the way of my own argument, simply letting the facts and the observations speak for themselves as much as possible. If I present it as something that “I” think, then I will have fundamentally devalued and undermined my argument – why should anybody care what I think?

Naturally, there is far more to it than a hope to rest comfortably on objectivity. Why should anybody care what I think, indeed. I’m a nobody, a college dropout from nowhere, a first generation college graduate at the age of 29, having taken eleven years to finish a four year degree (a B. Mus. at that, not a liberal arts degree), who then, even with good grades and test scores, still had to do three years of coursework as an unmatriculated student before there was any way to be competitive for graduate schools, all the while hearing from a chorus of professors, “I’m more than happy to write you a letter of recommendation, but I’m not sure you’re going to be able to get there from here.” Why should anybody care what I think? Good heavens, I will need to make sure I publish under a pseudonym just to be taken at all seriously. Better yet, I should somehow indicate on my C. V. that I simply sprang forth fully-grown from the head of Zeus with my PhD already in hand.

But there is still more to it than that, surely. I’ve been at Indiana University in one capacity or another since 2003, somewhat ironically making it the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. My family bounced around a lot for reasons best recounted elsewhere, and even now, they live, quite dispersed, in places I have never lived, in houses I never called home, in zip codes I never visited until they moved there. Brown can rely on her connection with the place of Elgin, Illinois as an anchor for where she is now, but I am literally from nowhere, in the sense that I have had to construct my notion of “home” from different raw materials than place and family, and I find it very difficult to relate to concepts of home that do center around place and family. If my family moved around for reasons having to do with the military or career development, than I might be able to legitimately claim – as a friend of mine, the son of a prominent Russian History scholar, does – to be a “citizen of the world,” to be from everywhere. Alas, I can claim nothing quite so romantic or interesting. Robert Frost once said that home is where, if you have to go there, they have to take you, but the places where that is even marginally true are places that have never actually been a part of my life. If Brown is correct that one’s biography is closely linked to place, than I truly am the Nowhere Man – so again, why should anybody care what I think?

But, of course, there is still more to it than that.

“In my quest to explore the human condition,” writes Brown, “I have hidden behind my subjects, using them as a scrim to project my own sentiments and feelings.”[7] There is an undeniable connection between who somebody is and what interests them; for her own part, Brown describes this connection by saying, “I believe that I was able to see stories that had not yet taken shape for other historians because of the sensitivities I acquired in my past.”[8] My advisor, Professor Edward Watts, is potentially an example; he is an academic raised in a family of academics. His parents are both academics, and his sister is an academic. What was the subject of his dissertation? Rhetorical education in Late Antique Alexandria and Athens. As I told him after I read the book, it is difficult to not see his work as having an aspect of meta-commentary on the academic life. He chuckled and said, “You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.”

Beyond that example, I saw with my own eyes how the personal connection between historian and subject might manifest with my colleagues during orientation and initial class meetings:

“Hi, I’m Roberto Arroyo, and I’m interested in Latin American history.”

“My name is Isaac Rosenbaum, and I do Holocaust history.”

“I’m Lakshmi Patel, and I’m studying the history of relations between India and Pakistan.”

The Late Antique Byzantinist whose last name is not “Ioannides” or “Sotiriou” is left at something of a disadvantage in such company. Yes, there is, in fact, a personal reason that connects me to my subject of inquiry, a personal reason that should not be too hard to surmise for the careful observer (but one that is best discussed in another setting), but a personal reason that is nonetheless internal, abstract, and conceptual rather than immediately and concretely constructed by place or family – that is to say, by the circumstances which I did not choose. I have personal stakes that led me to my areas of interest, but because they are of my own choosing I must be circumspect in how I speak in terms of “I”, “we”, and “our” if I am to be seen as having sufficient distance from my subject to be credible as a scholar. Edward Said and Dipesh Chakrabarty appear adamant that cultures and societies must define themselves, that to not allow such self-definition is cultural imperialism,[9] and yet this mandate of courtesy with respect to communal identity does not appear to extend to those who have embraced certain communities voluntarily.

Of course, I also have the problem that I am not interested in my subject from a critical point of view; I find it anachronistic to explicitly read whatever my own political beliefs and values may be – and, for today’s purposes, we may broadly describe them as uncomfortably conservative as Russell Kirk defined the word, which according to contemporary definitions probably makes me liberal – into my historical subject, but per Elizabeth Blackmar as quoted by Ted Steinberg, we historians are not supposed to evade the question of politics.[10] According to Steinberg, the role of the historian in the present day is evidently to explore “the history of oppression,”[11] and this attitude is one I see largely borne out in my cohort. Nonetheless, the reality is that such a history is not the history of the Late Antique Eastern Roman Empire I have any desire to write. I have better things to do than study something with the express purpose of tearing it down. I fundamentally believe it is possible to be more productive and constructive – but do I only believe that because of my other beliefs in the first place? Is my choice of the word “constructive” itself telling, possibly signifying that I would rather buy into the social constructions that historians are supposed to deconstruct? The 3rd person voice of objectivity keeps me from having to mess with such potentially treacherous questions.

If men make their own history, but not under circumstances they choose for themselves, and history is supposed to be the history of oppression, then must a historian writing their own history engage in self-hatred by definition? Brown does not appear to write a piece of self-hatred, but it is clear that she is uncomfortable with the implications of her own essay – “My palms sweat as I write this… The intimacy of the first person takes down borders between author and subject, borders that are considered by many to be healthy in a profession situated between the social sciences and the humanities.”[12] Chakrabarty suggests one possible way out, explicitly referencing autobiography and history as two separate and distinct genres[13] – so not only is autobiography, the history of oneself, not history, but history isn’t a discipline anyway, it’s a genre. But here is the rub – if history is a genre somewhere “between” the social sciences and the humanities, and a historian writing their own history must find a methodologically honest way to not engage themselves at the level of self-hatred, which then in fact moves the work into a different genre altogether, then the historian can never actually engage in a real work of self-historicization that is not self-mutilatory.

At any rate, can we claim objectivity anyway by avoiding biographical detail or the first person? In a post-structuralist world where we must assume a fundamental disconnect between signifier and signified, does it really matter to begin with? Or is a research paper written in the omniscient third person much like Bruno Latour’s depiction of the laboratory[14] or Bonnie Smith’s history seminar and archive[15] – a socially constructed, that is to say false, space of knowledge-based privilege that can assert authority it does not actually have simply because a particular group of people have become convinced that it does?

I do not have answers to my own questions, posed at the outset of this musing. I am not certain where to go with them. My inclination is to say the various circumstances of my own life may appear as arbitrary as Anderson insists the front page of the newspaper actually is, but by virtue of the very fact that I in fact experience those circumstances in chronological order, I nonetheless perceive them as my own narrative. My inclination is to say that I cannot be forced to historicize my own life as a history of oppression any more than I can legally be required to self-incriminate in a court of law. My inclination is to say that nonetheless, I am better off keeping my arguments in the third person and keeping my “self” out of the voice of my own work, that regardless of what I think, we all know what a coffee table will feel like if we rap it with our knuckles, and that in saying that I am not privileging people who have hands or who do not have nerve damage. My inclination is to say that there must be a world outside of our own minds, and that there must be a way we can discuss it, even if our own minds tell us how we’re going to organize our perceptions of that world. Are these words and ideas too strong, too dangerous, too naïve, too uninformed? I do not know, but I do not know where else to start.

And perhaps that is why it is good I work in a period many people find irrelevant. It keeps me from becoming a danger to myself or to others.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. 2 ed. New York: Verso, 2006.

Blackmar, Elizabeth. “Contemplating the Force of Nature.” Radical Historians Newsletter no. 70 (1994).

Brown, Kate. “A Place in Biography for Oneself.” American Historical Review no. 114 (2009): 596-605.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?” Representations no. 37 (1992): 1-26.

Latour, Bruno. “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.” In Science Observed: Perpsectives on the Social Study of Science, edited by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, 141-70. London: Sage, 1983.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 594-617. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Reprint, 2003.

Smith, Bonnie. “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research.” American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (1998): 1150-76.

Steinberg, Ted. “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History.” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002): 798-820.

[1] Kate Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” American Historical Review, no. 114 (2009), 603.

[2] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978), 595.

[3] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 600-3.

[4] Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” 595.

[5] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 604.

[6] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2 ed. (New York: Verso, 2006), 33.

[7] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 603.

[8] Ibid., 605.

[9] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; reprint, 2003). Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?,” Representations, no. 37 (1992).

[10] Elizabeth Blackmar, “Contemplating the Force of Nature,” Radical Historians Newsletter, no. 70 (1994)., 4. Quoted in Ted Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002), 804.

[11] Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” 802.

[12] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 603.

[13] Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?”, 8.

[14] Bruno Latour, “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World,” in Science Observed: Perpsectives on the Social Study of Science, ed. Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay (London: Sage, 1983). Accessed online at on 9 November 2009.

[15] Bonnie Smith, “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research,” American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (1998).

More on the division of disciplines

"Whether or not the subject of a painting actually existed has no bearing on the painting itself." Really?

Tuesday’s meeting of “Problems in Early Christian Art” led to two fascinating developments. One was a classmate making the baldest, most militant statement I could imagine about enforcing the separation of Art History from History as a whole: “Whether or not the subject of a painting actually existed has no bearing on the painting itself.” I find that to be a truly remarkable statement on all sorts of levels.

Incidentally, this was the same person who told me, “You can’t do that,” when I attempted to relate what we were reading to St. Nectarios’ monastery, which makes the second development even more notable: after having told me last week that it was dangerous and problematic to try to apply Cormack’s line of questioning to a contemporary example, because “we cannot assume they are the same”, this student asked the professor at the end of this week’s class, “So, why is St. Nectarios’ monastery the same as everything else we’ve looked at?”


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