Archive for July, 2013

How do we get there from here? What would that even mean?

When I was maybe 9, I spent 10 days at a summer camp, and one of the friends I made there was a kid named Aziz. We hung out a lot, we talked about Run-DMC (this was 1986, so Raising Hell had just come out), and in general just did a lot of things 9-11 year olds do at summer camp together.

Camp ended, and the bus was dropping us off in a big parking lot where there were lots of parents waiting for us. I wanted Aziz to meet my parents; as soon as I even mentioned the possibility, he disappeared, and I never saw him again. I didn’t understand what happened, and I’m still not sure I do.

Obviously, given the generation I’m in, I grew up hearing stories from a lot of adults who lived through the ’60s and ’70s. By no means were all the adults who had formative presences in my life people who talked about the social developments of those decades in a positive manner; on the contrary, I got very different messages about that period from a number of people. Certainly, I heard from my public school teachers in particular about how amazing and wonderful and liberating everything was, and how during the ’60s America had finally started to take seriously the idea that it should provide liberty and justice for all, not merely the privileged few, and I heard about how much of a monster Nixon was, and how terrible Vietnam was, and how Reagan was running the country into the ground, and so on.

At the same time, I also heard from other adults in my life things like, “You can’t legislate love'”, variations on “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, how awesome Barry Goldwater and Nixon were, how Donna’s dad in La Bamba was being perfectly reasonable in not wanting her to go out with Ritchie Valens, and “If I didn’t hate black people before the Civil Rights Act, I sure as heck hated them afterward,” and that MLKjr was a “rabble-rouser”, and how the Kennedys were the real villains of the ’60s and ’70s, etc. There was one adult in particular who, as a small business owner, was adamant that nobody was ever going to tell him whom he was required to hire or what allowances he was going to make for them. “As a business owner, I will do what I judge to be in my best interests according to the market forces that already regulate my business. If I judge it’s in my best interests to hire minorities because they’re actually the best people for the job, I will do that. If I don’t, I won’t. How can it possibly be otherwise?” This person also tended to have a low opinion of whomever he judged to be “not following the law”. Things like civil disobedience, aggressive actions on the part of organized labor, and the like, were usually labeled in terms of “legitimized criminality”.

As a grown-up academic, obviously I’m exposed to a lot of critical theory about how race, gender, sexuality, economics, class, and any number of other categories are what drive our society’s current set of circumstances. As I’ve said before, I don’t really buy it; that’s not to discount them entirely as forces, but as was stressed to me last Wednesday during my dissertation proposal defense, forces and things aren’t agents. People are agents; they’re the ones who actually do things. And, much as Cleolinda Jones talks about her “People in Dracula don’t know they’re in Dracula” problem, I have a “People in real life don’t know they’re in a poststructuralist theoretical treatise” problem. Somehow you have to balance how you talk about people making choices and the forces that are involved when people make those choices. Otherwise, all critical theory does is take you out of an ostensibly Christian Calvinism and put you in a secular version, where your actions are largely predetermined by your race, your socio-economic status, what have you. How do you balance that? I don’t know. I remember a conversation I had with a friend once who said, “Conservatives place too much import on personal responsibility; liberals don’t give it enough.” This was a pretty liberal friend, so if even he had that dilemma, I don’t know how I can possibly answer the question.

That said, as a person (since it’s people who do things), I’m horrified by a lot of what I see. I’m horrified by how I see people treat each other, by our quickness to categorize another person as the enemy (usually because this person is perceived as having been equally quick to categorize somebody as the enemy), by our willingness to be ignorant, by our readiness to struggle to the death for the winning narrative — with each other. There’s a Syriac idiom whereby one expresses the idea of slander as “eating somebody’s pieces” — that is, the image seems to be of a carrion bird pecking away at somebody’s flesh. We all eat each other’s pieces on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Where the death of Trayvon Martin is concerned, I can’t help but think about my friend from camp who was off like a shot as soon as I said, “Hey, you should meet my parents.” Clearly there was a situation there that he perceived, or assumptions he was making, even at age 9 or 10, that I had no way of understanding. Some adults I grew up with might say, “Well, his parents taught him to hate white people.” But is that the only way to see it? Were there signals I was sending unawares that he somehow figured would be amplified with the next generation back? I don’t know. In the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, Mr. Zimmerman seems to have made a number of assumptions about a person he knew nothing about — but can you disentangle those assumptions from race? Zimmerman himself is half-Jewish and half-Latino — is he “white”, per se, or is that simply that he’s “not black” and therefore functionally “white” for the purposes of evaluating the scenario?

I keep reading about how the Zimmerman verdict is the result of systemic racism in our legal system, that it’s evidence that our system fails to be impartial and in fact actively works against any notion of impartiality. Okay; let’s say that’s true. What, then, is the systemic fix? What are the things that people, since they’re the agents, need to do to fix the system? Or can it be fixed? What would that even mean or look like? Has the narrative of America’s corrupt, evil foundations ultimately won the day, here’s the proof, and the only real fix is demolishing what we have and starting over?

I have a lot more I could say, and maybe someday I will, but I’ll wrap this up for now by saying that in the end, even if certain aspects of the case don’t have the same kind of clarity for me that they do for others, my sympathies have to go to Trayvon Martin and his family, not Mr. Zimmerman. There’s a young man, a person made in the image of God, who will never make it home and his family will never know for certain why. That’s a tragedy that I must find completely unacceptable; memory eternal. What hopefully can do as a person, as an agent, as a parent, is to teach my son to first and foremost see the image of God in every single other person, and to treat all people accordingly as precious. It’s ham-handed and corny-sounding, maybe, but I don’t have another way. Lord have mercy on all of us.


Upcoming itinerary: Mid-Eastern Federation of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians 2013

I didn’t have a chance to post on it at the time, but I recently had a lovely time at the 2013 Liturgical Singing Seminar of the ROCOR Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America. It was held at St. Sergius Cathedral in Cleveland, which was a breathtakingly gorgeous setting for the event. I also got to see my friends Kurt and Larissa Sander, I met some really great new friends, I got to sing some really amazing music with a wonderful group of people, and I got to experience a near-3 hour long hierarchical Divine Liturgy. Very glad I was there.

Next weekend (19-21 July) I’ll be at the convention for the Mid-Eastern Federation of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians (MEFGOX) in Cincinnati, and I’ll even be teaching a session there — on Saturday, 10:45-12:00, I’ll be giving a workshop on the Third Mode, focusing mostly on the resurrectional hymnody for Sunday morning. If you’re there, please come and say hi!

Call for papers for Byzantine Studies Association of North America sessions at Kalamazoo 2014

The Byzantine Studies Association of North America (BSANA) sponsored sessions at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo this last May, trying raise the profile of Byzantine matters amongst medievalists in general. They’re sponsoring another couple of sessions in 2014, and I pass along the CFPs here:

CFPs: BSANA-sponsored sessions at 2014 International Congress on Medieval Studies, 8-11 May 2014, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI

Session A: Contested Spaces and Byzantium

The landscape of the Roman world as it began fragmenting in late antiquity, as well as its proximity to Sassanid Persia (and later, the Caliphates, the Abbasids, the Seljuks, and then finally the Ottomans) meant that the Eastern half of the Empire was constantly having to solve the problem of contested spaces on several fronts. Militarily, the frontier of the Middle East was subject to much back-and-forth between Persia and Byzantium, as the early sixth century Sassanid siege of Amida demonstrates, as does the expedition of the Himyarites into northern Arabia. The Sassanid desire to restore Achaemenid-era borders in the Middle East and Asia Minor also made Jerusalem and Antioch the objects of struggle over occupation in the early seventh century. Of course, Muslim possession of formerly Roman territories fueled the Crusades during the Middle Ages, making Constantinople itself an object of siege and an occupied territory in the thirteenth century. In between the seventh and thirteenth centuries, the Bulgars, Khazars, Rus’, and Seljuk Turks turned eastern Europe and the Balkans into focal points of military struggle as well, such as with the Battle of Manzikert in the eleventh century.

From a religious point of view, central and eastern Europe became loci of conflict and negotiation between Byzantine and Frankish Christianity, such as the mission to Moravia of Cyril and Methodius, and the apparent jockeying of the Bulgars and the Rus’ between Constantinople and Rome for the most favorable terms on conversion.

On a civic scale, the Byzantine city itself has been a location of physical and religious strife; militarily, besides the 1204 sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders, there was the 626 attack by the Avars, and the tenth century sea attacks by the Rus’. In religious terms, the public spaces of cities in Byzantium have been subject to struggle, such as the competing choral street processions of the Arians and the Nicenes led by John Chrysostom in the late fourth/early fifth century, the East/West religious aspects of the Latin Empire of Constantinople in the thirteenth century, and into fourteenth century with the theological dimensions of the Zealot/Hesychast controversy in Thessaloniki. Even within the church building, there is discursive and liturgical struggle, such as Symeon of Thessaloniki’s pitting of the “sung service” of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople against the neo-Sabaïtic typikon that had become nearly universal by the time Symeon was writing in the fifteenth century.

This panel, then, will explore the theme of contested spaces in Byzantium. How can we better understand and interrogate issues of space and society in the Byzantine world? How do social forces in Byzantium construct these spaces, and how do these spaces, be they physical or ideological, subsequently influence society? What fresh theoretical approaches might be helpful?

Session B: Remaking the Empire: Socioeconomic Connectivity and Imperial Architecture under Justinian

Justinian’s empire saw Constantinople control the most extensive territory it would hold for the rest of its days.  These conquests also renewed networks of socioeconomic connectivity across the Mediterranean, bonds that held west and east together and facilitated the movement of not only goods and people, but ideas, styles, and even disease.  Within the artistic and architectural spheres, this connectivity–along with the emperor’s Mediterranean-wide ambitions–led to a period of building on a grand scale. Broadly Byzantine structures in part modeled on the cosmopolitan style of the imperial heartland appeared throughout the Mediterranean, and even the white marble quarried from the island of Marmara saw use in every corner of the restored Empire. Justinian’s building program itself has been well studied and its artistic uniformity is well known.  What is comparatively poorly understood are the networks of exchange and communication that facilitated the movement of these ideas and materials, and the situation of these new structures and styles within local settings. Under what directive was marble quarried and shipped?  How were building materials transported, and how was this transportation financed and organized by official or private mechanisms?  Who were the artisans? And how were these new structures understood by local communities far from the Byzantine core?  To what extent did they represent foreign dominance? How might their meanings have been transformed and renegotiated within different local contexts? This session brings together scholars exploring the role of renewed socioeconomic connectivity in the development of the vibrant artistic and architectural programs of late antiquity.

Please send abstracts of no more than a page to Richard Barrett at rrbarret [AT] indiana . edu by 15 September 2013.

A new acronym – ABD

I suggested three and a half months ago, right after I passed my exams, that I might defend my dissertation proposal by the beginning of May. Well, for reasons of the availability of committee members, it didn’t get scheduled until 10 July, this last Wednesday. Between 29 March (my oral exam) and 10 July, I finished out the semester, presented part of an earlier draft of the proposal at the International Medieval Congress in at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI, started a 9-week intensive summer Arabic course, and did a page 1 rewrite of the dissertation proposal about two and a half weeks before the defense.

I’m not even going to suggest that Wednesday was a smooth ride. They grilled me so thoroughly I felt like St. Laurence of Rome by the end — black and crispy on both sides. Still, I passed, which means I’m now a Ph. D. candidate and not just a student — ABD, “all but dissertation”. I’ve gotten over all the hurdles I’ve needed this year (although it might fairly be said that I caught my toe on one or two of them in the leap), and now it’s time to actually demonstrate I can write a dissertation — “Civic Devotions to the Mother of God in Late Antique Constantinople” is the working title right now, although that will likely change. In a nutshell, I’m foregrounding liturgical issues in the growth of Byzantine Marian devotions between the Council of Ephesus and the Persian/Avar siege of 626 and trying to see what that can tell us about why the Constantinopolitan cult of the Theotokos develops the way it does.

That said, my first task as a newly-defended candidate is to rewrite my proposal from scratch (again) by the beginning of August. Yeah. There’s a story there that I’ll have to save for another time; suffice to say that, like I said, I was black and crispy on both sides by the time we were all done on Wednesday. Still, we’re all shooting for me to be done by the end of the 2014/15 academic year, and I think that’s going to be very doable, God willing.

I’d like to take a moment to thank two people in particular (not that they will ever see this blog, but never mind): Professors Edward Watts and Deborah Deliyannis. I have been fortunate enough to be blessed with both a wonderful Doktorvater as well as Doktormutter in this crazy experience of getting into (and checking the boxes to then get out of) grad school, and without their advice, guidance, and occasionally pugilant advocacy since before I even got admitted to the department, I’d have been up a creek from the start. I’m thankful for both of them, to say the least.

More a bit later.

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