Friday, March 30, 2007


What makes people happy?

He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? Micah 6:8

The people who go to Country View Chapel are strange looking to people who don’t know them. The gestures they make: grown men rubbing their rough cheeks together in a Holy Kiss. The man with the scraggly beard who starts the songs sharps them a half step every verse. The
wrinkled widows, clutch their Bibles, squint through their cataracts, and scribble notes-to-self on how to make the teachings of Jesus practicable in their lives. The ministers start off their ramblings with comments on the weather. Warmth and light reminds one of heaven; budding plants reminds the other of new life. The deacon says: people say if only I could posses something different: a wife, a car, a house, a salary, a body, an authority. Covetousness is the unlawful desire for what we don’t need. The man who covets is always poor.

Life isn’t contained by our possessions says the deacon. Neither is it indicated by the pursuit of self interest alone. Rather it is in becoming one with God/with each other. It’s not the pleasure principle exactly, but by making obedience not grievous: helping, loving those in need. This is the Mennonite way. It seems attractive. Small children reciting verses of scripture, squirming out loud; mothers and mothers-in-training sit on the left on hard wood benches. Fathers, bread-winners, sit on the right. No one knows why.

We don’t have any control over the time God allows us to have, the deacon says. Only faith, trust and honesty, as the cover of the church service bulletin says, will last. That is to say: visiting the sick, caring for the widows, and otherwise loving each other – this will go on. This social organization of men in black coats and white shirts, women in hand sewn pastels and white mesh “coverings” clasping their children and Sunday school “quarterlies” from Christian Light Publications, backing their cars into gravel parking spaces in front of the chicken wire enclosed cemetery, conscious and unconscious in their solidarity – this will go on. It you don’t enjoy life with what you have, you won’t enjoy life with more: that’s just a fact, the deacon says. Having food and raiment let us therefore be content. Preparing and participating in the eternal moment this is the concern. This is the Life that counts.

After church, small boys, miniature versions of their fathers in black and white, play basketball on a concrete slab behind the church. One of them is my brother.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Last night I felt like I made my first friend at Columbia University. I’m taking two classes there right now in the Asian Studies MA program in Liberal Studies. This is my first semester and I’m finding the student population while perhaps slightly more intelligent than average does not do out of its way to absorb newcomers. My comparativeliterature course is populated by a mix of fairly self-absorbed daughters of diplomats (with pedigree) and Asian Americans with inferiority complexes (without pedigree) which compels them to continually prove their competence. The redeeming students are the entranced, affirmingly nodding, intensely staring, graduate students from Hongzhou and Tokyo. These are the students who eat-out very little and wear dumpy coats; they don’t go to the opera; they’re here to learn rather than posture.

Last night after Gayatri Spivak’s lecture 40 feet under the burnished dome of the Lowe Library, I spoke to one of these students. Yurou is a graduate of Qinghua University (the best school in China). She speaks Lacan and Derrida better than I do in English (I wonder what it sounds like in Chinese?). She smiles like she really cares. She wears a pink sweater, with a pink hair band/barrette thing and sort of matching pink NewBalance sneakers both last night and today in class. I like her.

I like Gayatri Spivak too. So I like Columbia University Professors and Columbia Ph.D students from non-western countries. Despite its pretensions, Columbia is good place to think. Edward Said said so in his after-word to Orientalism. So did Orhan Pamuk who came here to win his Nobel Prize in literature last year. Its nice to be surrounded by high ceilinged buildings named Pulitzer and Philosphy; its nice to get lost in the Union Theological Seminary while looking for Foucault in the dusty stacks of shelves. I like listening to people like Spivak talk about their friends Derrida, Sontag, Wolfowitz (!) and how we should disrupt the homogenizing effect of global capitalism by insisting on deeply learning the language of the cultural other and thereby avoid the temptation of making the world over in our own image.

I like it, but I’m wary too. I like Gayatri Spivak’s down to earth orality which she says she learned from her mother who “raised” her (which in Hindi literally means “to make human”). I like that she noticed that two of several hundred people left midway through her lecture. She looked dignified for 70ish in her black velvet chengsam and orange sari – her henna tinted hair closely cropped. But I don’t like that she demands (according to a rumor I know) to rent a Jaguar when she visits other colleges for guest lectures or that Slavoj Zizek (another self-professed Marxian) has a supermodel for a wife/girlfriend. But then I notice that my Mongol history professor the world’s authority on Khubilai Khan wears decades old jeans with a patch at the crotch where they blew out. Maybe it is possible to be in this world but not entirely of it. My new friend Yurou with the pink hair band seems to be. Maybe I can turn this Ivy League (identity) thing on its head and use it for my own purposes without being corrupted. Why not?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

To Haiti

Hey Matthew, sorry for not getting back to you sooner. you can probably rescue the pictures you shot with the wrong white balance. you'll just have to do it in photoshop.

it is really tough taking pictures in strange place particularly in rural haiti where skin so clearly delineates who one is. one thing i tried was to limit the space in which to shoot (like someones house which is a distance from others) and then begin by shooting the obligatory posed photos then as your subjects begin to get more comfortable with the camera, the sound of it, it's imposing lens, it should get easier to capture something more natural -- as they begin to forget or at least adapt to the presence of the foreign things. the point is that you don't swoop in shutter flying, scanning, but rather you take the time to develop a relationship, they begin to see you as a person and you them rather than you as a slave to a machine which inoculates and extracts and them as potential souvenirs. "real" normalcy, if it exists in relation to photography, exists only through the cultivation of relations between you and other subjects. they need to trust you in order to act freely and normally. you must be sensitive to "the other" person, or they will, with good reason, feel exploited. you are after all capturing a part of their person and habitus, and could potentially appropriate and exploit their "exoticism." so I think you must be sensitive to them and their desires, treating them as fully formed people, rather than as objects to be captured or consumed. so the goal of the photo is to say something about the essence of the subject and attempt to capture the spirit of a way of being or something like that. but then the doubt remains as to whether that spirit or essence existed prior to your perception/delusion. but at that point maybe it doesn't matter as much and photography should be enjoyed as a process/experience without regard for the "final" product. that the pleasure and the relations it builds between and across difference makes it worthwhile and the images and impressions that result as frozen fragments are just co-incidental byproducts of a way of being human in the world. if this is the case it seems as if "realism" or "total-vision" as the optimal goal of photography (in which the photographer functions as an omniscient narrator who is constantly attempting to remove any traces of his presence) becomes less important then the play between subjects. photography is then a study of human interaction, humans responding to you and you to them, rather than centered around the box you/they are framed with. in a small way you become conscious that what you see through your camera, the way you frame the world, is the way in which you want to see the world and be seen in it (that is, your trip to haiti, your presence in haiti, will be presented through your images, you will be seen through your images). i could ramble on in an even less coherent fashion but this is perhaps enough.

all this said, it is extremely difficult to overcome social/self-consciousness without fearing you are trampling on the desires of others.

i wish i was there to try it with you


A young girl watches the action. Matthew Wenger

This photo is a good illustration of what happens when a subject forgets the prescence of the camera: the freezing of the essence or spirit of beauty; a beauty which lies entrenched in "natural," or better, inexplicable, human emotion. Matthew has carefully composed this picture with layered focal points lending the viewer a way of contextualizing the environment of the place it reflects. The centering lines which constitute the tables in the background draw the viewer's eye back to the subject of the image. The careful framing of the head of the young girl against the brown square mat on the gray wall behind her further propels the subject to the front of the image. This, in combination with the delicate balance of light, particularly the rim lighting on her face, makes the image of this girl want to leap off the one-dimensional surface to which she is bound. Seen as a combination of elements and read as one would read music or a haiku this image attempts to reflect in inscription “the very emptiness of a note of music” (Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, 76) whose mystery remains despite our best efforts and affections as “natural” and inexplicable as a tree, a moon, or a human mind. This is the best photo I have seen from Matthew yet . . . .

Saturday, March 10, 2007

On the Town

6:00:15, P.M. – My phone rings, 15 seconds after my alarm clock. Jennifer is on the phone wondering if I still want to do something tonight. I am groggy, grouchy even. She wants me to decide between a piano concert at the 3rd Street School of Music or a night at the Rubin Museum of Art looking at their 800 year anniversary retrospective of Chinggis Khan’s Mongols. After 10 minutes of indecision I settle out of desperation on the Rubin. Jennifer says she’ll meet me in the first car of the A train at 59th street where she is sitting in Borders working on her notes after work. She tells me to bring Tylenol.

7:30 – After calling Jennifer three times she calls me back. The train was so crowded, and I wasn’t sure if she got on or not. And I didn’t know if I was supposed to get off and look for her or not . . . . She didn’t get on my train. She lets 7 trains go by before she climbs out of the train station to check her phone and listen to me tell her I’m already at the museum, waiting, reading a book on participatory economics through my “early morning” haze. Now, Jennifer is here, looking tired. I forgot the Tylenol. She says she’s feeling better. We try not to be mad at each other.

9:00 – I can see why Professor Rossabi who teaches my course on the Mongols in History at Columbia University doesn’t really like the Rubin Museum. The stuff is all so modern (nothing older than 19th century), it doesn’t really present a very good narrative, it has virtually nothing to do with Chinggis (1162-1227). It’s still a little bit interesting – the pictures are good. I’m starving. The tour guide talks with weird consonants and strange S’s, it’s driving Jennifer nuts. We go down to the coat-check and claim our coats from the videogame playing attendant who is very nice. And hunt for sesame pancake sandwiches over by Union Square. It’s cold but Jennifer says her body is warm under her red quilted down coat. I carry her backpack which has a computer and glass water-bottle in it. Jennifer tells me about her patients today and the politics of OTing.

9:45 – Jennifer is getting really tired. The food is good at Vanessa’s Dumplings, with just the right amount of cilantro and lively Chinese workers. Jennifer thinks I am staring too much. Probably. It’s time to get Jennifer home. We try the L train but see that the next train isn’t coming for 12 minutes and chase down the M14 bus instead. We sit down across from a small boy with a lickmouth problem who is fighting with his older brother over who gets to press the “stop request” button. The older brother wins. We get off a block early by mistake, and walk past a homeless woman shrouded in black, surrounded by three overflowing pushcarts. Jennifer wonders how she moves them around. We wait for the A train and talk about whether or not women use more fake facial expressions then men, if black and latino people get caught with marijuana more often than white people because they all live with their parents and grandparents and can’t smoke at home so they have to do it outside. In the A train, there is a young black man across from us sleeping really deeply even though he is sitting up. Later he wakes up and starts yelling. Jennifer thinks he’s mad at me for looking at him.

10:30 – Jennifer slips and falls on the ice in front of the 24-hr immigrant carwash half a block from our apartment. I tell them to put some more salt down on the sidewalk. Jennifer is sore but ok. She laughs at the sludge on the butt region of her coat. I knock down the picture collage in the hallway of our apartment with her backpack.

Friday, March 02, 2007


Of Laughter

There is a difference in laughing at a tickle and laughing at a comedy. Laughing at a tickle is hard to explain – it’s involuntary, it’s torment. Comedy on the other hand is even harder to explain. It is a procedure of surprise at the absence of sense – it’s the way of finding relief, of breathing. It’s a laugh which constructs a space for irony. It is laughing because there is nothing else to do if one wants to keep on living.

I remember a time when I laughed when Jennifer cried (mourning is sort of like the inversion of comedy). I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do. It was not out of scorn or derision (which isn’t really a laugh anyway). She was crying because I didn’t understand her and I was laughing because I didn’t know how to understand. The whole thing seemed ironic there on the love-seat under the skylight outside my dad’s study in my family room in Ohio. We had got ourselves into this nonsensical relationship in which both of us were trying desperately to make sense, yet we weren’t communicating what we wanted to say – we may as well have been blowing hot air in each others ears (which tickles but is not really pleasant).

I had to think of this unfortunate event (which by the way with a little space to breath worked itself out such that I don’t remember what we were trying to say in the first place) after hearing the heavily bearded philosopher of the desert of the real, the fragile absolute, the Big Other, Slavoj Zizek last night. Zizek put on good show demonstrating the stink of the neighbor (people who are different that me/we), and why Habermas will be thrown in the gulag in Zizekistan (he was joking i think), while all the while issuing mysterious "shh" noises as punctuation accompanying his more coherent idiosyncratic grammar, and gesticulating in a nose-pulling to shirt-pulling circular pattern. He talked about among many things the circus of totalitarianism, Stalinism in particular. He said that when Stalin volunteered to commit suicide shortly before his demise the Politburo burst into laughter. The irony of a man, the ringmaster, who had allowed if not directed the destruction of so many offering himself as a martyr struck the Russian funnybone. This laughter seems bizarre to us just as laughing at the fate of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis seems terrible. But the Iraqis can laugh and I’m sure they do. They laugh at the terror, the powerlessness, the nonsense, how else could they keep living? They would probably laugh if Dick Cheney offered to try waterboarding like an insurgent (“it’s just water”), because the strength of his character would not bring back their children, husbands, wives. And that’s the tragedy, the people who cause the circus don’t know they are directing a comedy. They don’t know why the Iraqis are laughing at them.