Saturday, March 2, 2013


The New York Times did a moving article about the Catholic mission in Nigeria some weeks ago. It's just the kind of thing that fuels my longstanding Catholic-envy. Why is it that the Catholic church doesn't worry about racial and ethnic diversity? (There are more Catholics now in the southern hemisphere than in the northern.) Why is it that the Catholic church can pack working-class people and intellectuals into the same room? What are the mechanisms that ensure that David Tracy and Jean-Luc Marion speak the same spiritual language as the abjectly poor Nigerians who sleep on the church floor (see image)?

Yesterday my Episcopal parish held a very nice dinner for newcomers in one of the parishioner's house. The house was filled with books, American Indian pottery, Victorian photographs, Oriental rugs, handmade ceramic dishes and cups. The guests were friendly and welcoming, many of them were professors from the University of Oregon and many could be overheard talking about their dissertation topics. Ten years ago, I would have found this environment foreign and "other": they would have represented to me the habitat of educated upper middle-class white people. Today, I find this environment familiar. Since my involvement with the Episcopal church in college, I have become as "waspified" as one could as a Taiwanese-American immigrant. Even though I was still the only non-white person at the dinner, this environment is no longer "other" to me; it is a part of me. By participating in it, I feel that my place is ever more secured among educated white people who are also my natural work colleagues (I was one of those university professors at the dinner last night). It also means that my distance from the abjectly poor Nigerians is increasing.

During one of the conversations last night with various people, I briefly mentioned the Anglican church in Nigeria. My interlocutor immediately commented on a well-known fact: "The Nigerian churches are extremely homophobic." Indeed, I wouldn't deny it. But this comment also suggests that the Anglicans and Episcopalians of North America have very different values and priorities than their African brothers and sisters. (Do they consider the Africans brothers and sisters? The Catholics would.) Is the ordination of gays and lesbians the most important issue in a country where, according to the Catholic leaders in Nigeria, the church is only functioning institution, where people have no place to sleep and no access to adequate medical care? While the social advancement of gays and lesbians is a worthwhile cause for middle-class persons living in the northern hemisphere, is "homophobia" enough of a reason to break with the African churches? Should we consent to choose between LGBT brothers and sisters, who resemble us in class and education, and African brothers and sisters who may be homophobic but do not shop for organic vegetables?

The Roman Catholic church is said to be homophobic, misogynist, anti-modern, anti-democratic, patriarchal, etc. In fact, I can even add more adjectives if I wish: corrupt, crypto-pagan, mafia-like, sadomasochistic, perverse. The truth remains that this institution has survived for 2,000 years because, despite all its failings, it is concretely and not simply rhetorically committed to the universal brother- and sister-hood of human beings across race, ethnic and class divides. It has held on to the notion of "We are all one body," excruciatingly as it may be at times. The idea seems to be that it's better to go to hell all together as one big family than to be in heaven as separately saved individuals.

Recently, a completely irreligious young man asked me gleefully, "Hey, I heard that the Episcopal church is not religious at all, it's all about people making social connections with the high powers. That's the way it should be! Maybe I should join!" Needlessly to say, my Catholic-envy only increased.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A thought out of time

It's been a hectic time recently. Work, professional conference, travel in the middle of the academic quarter. All of which means that I have not taken care to give room in my mind for things of a higher order: that is, higher than the PowerPoint lecture I have to give tomorrow, higher than the midterm I have to make for students, higher than the documents I have to review for the next faculty meeting. But what does it mean, things of a higher order? For religious persons, it probably means something like spiritual truth. (Yes, it is Lent, so I am being doubly bad for not giving room to things of a higher order.) The question is thus easier - and therefore not as much fun - to answer for religious persons than it is for secular individuals. What does it mean for the secular person to give room in her or his mind for things of a higher order?

I was teaching Duchamp today. In 1913, without having any notion of creating a work of art or a "readymade," Duchamp mounted a single bicycle wheel on top of a kitchen stool. In so doing he destroyed the stool: it could no longer be sat on. He also destroyed the wheel: it could only turn in vain instead of serving as an instrument of locomotion. This new entity amused Duchamp; it also calmed him. He compared to the experience of watching it turn in his studio to the experience of watching flames in the fireplace. Without the two being the least alike in visual resemblance, the flames in the fireplace and the bicycle readymade had in common their timelessness.

What a strange thing to say: The Duchamp bicycle wheel is timeless like the flames dancing in the fireplace. One may imagine easily the timelessness of the flames: most likely the fire did for the cavemen a similar number as the one it does for us now. But the Duchamp is a distinctly twentieth-century invention. In retrospect, Duchamp had invented the first work of conceptual art. What can this possibly have in common with the timelessness of the flame?

One way of thinking about timelessness is that it is eternal, forever unchanging. Another way is to think about it as out of time, in the sense of having stepped out of ordinary time, no matter for how short or for how long. One must therefore imagine the wheel spinning on top of the kitchen stool as something that profoundly changes the way we think about movement in relation to time. In ordinary time, the speed of the spinning wheel corresponds to the speed in which the bicycle carries us from point A to point B. The faster the wheel spins, the shorter the time it takes for us to get to our destination. Movement in this case is utilitarian, or interested. We have an interest in how fast or how slow the wheel spins. By mounting the wheel on top of the kitchen stool, Duchamp effectively disinterested it. Now, the wheel no longer carries anything. Nothing is at stake in it anymore. Whether it spins fast, slowly or not at all has no consequence in life whatsoever. It becomes like the flame in the fireplace: whether it flickers this way or other, whether it cracks now or then, it makes no difference to the fire as a whole. Above all, the wheel is not going anywhere no matter how fast or slow it spins. The stool is stationary: it holds the wheel up but also grounds it. The entity therefore has the effect of a turtle or beetle turned over on its back: its legs frantically moving in vain.

Yet there is nothing frantic about Duchamp's bicycle wheel. Duchamp's own view of it is that of an affectionate detachment: he smiles instead of despairs over the finitude of the wheel. Does Duchamp smile because he thinks the universe is closed like a chess game, but enigmatic because of the infinity of moves that can nevertheless be had within a strict set of inviolable rules? Probably. But I think he is smiling also because he found a way to defeat interested-ness; he found a way out of time. This is why the object is ultimately a calming object: it is the paradox of a static movement or a moving inertia that suggests the uselessness of all efforts to move, to beat time.

Paradoxically, it is the way out of time that allows Duchamp to make some of the most important interventions in twentieth-century art; by stepping out of time, he makes history. How so? In an increasingly utilitarian world, we might entertain the counter-intuitive idea that only the non-utilitarian has real value. For instance, what I am writing here has no scholarly value (probably). I will not publish it; I will not use it advance my career; I will not need it to demonstrate that I am learned about Duchamp (I am not). But for the very reason of its disinterestedness (other than that it amuses me, distracts me, relaxes me), what I am saying this evening about Duchamp may have more interest in the long run, more interest than my scholarly publications. Interest for whom, for what? The fact that I cannot answer these questions is already suggesting to me that I may be right.