Welcome to Chicago

One hears rumors that speakers coming to the University of Chicago [I speak here of History, Anthro and South Asia] to give a talk get apprehensive. They have heard the stories of harsh questions and severe grillings. They have heard about the graduate students. When they approach Foster 103, the speakers, all nervous like a bakra on Eid, can be easily divided into two categories: those that have been here before and those that haven’t. The first type will adopt an overly congenial manner, talking loudly with the faculty or needlessly loitering in the hallway. This, they think, sends a signal that they “belong”; that they are “one of us” and, hence, should be treated with deference. Former students are specially prone to such behavior. Forgetting, perhaps due to survival instincts, that Chicago devours it’s own first. The second type walk quickly and quietly with their faculty handler straight to the speaker’s chair. They shuffle around their papers and place their water bottle in the right spot. They are extremely careful in avoiding eye-contact and show no outward signs of any terror besides the green around the gills. After they finish the presentation, they submit to the slaughter with quiet dignity. Some even survive.

Why? There is the reputation of intellectual exactitude and rectitude at the University. There is the famous faculty with unkempt and unnatural facial hair that can make any presenter nervous. Above all, there are the Chicago graduate students who are weaned on a diet of intellectual snobbery and fraticide. Like the candidates, we are also easily divided into categories. In the immemorial words of Biggie Small, You see, there are two kind of people in the world today / We have, the playaz, and we have, the playa haters / Please donít hate me because Iím beautiful baby. Some of us are wanna-be playaz, and some are, indeed, playa haters.

It never stuck me as odd when the speakers on campus are asked tough questions about their meta-narrative or methodology or facts. Or when they are asked to explain this or that. I have watched some memorable displays of faculty or grads tearing someone’s arguments to shreds. Someone being very prominent members of the elite historians/anthropology guild. I admit I enjoyed it. I further admit that Chicago has nurtured some snarky habits in me as well. I am too quick to dismiss the entire argument if one piece doesn’t fit. I shrug away whole books because the intellectual agenda does not jibe with mine. I have, slowly, come to recognize these faults and am doing what I can to correct them.

The realization came last year when I had conversations with some speakers and learned of their abject horror at the way UChicago grads tear people down. Then, at conferences, I would talk to people from other places about panels we had both heard. They would say, “Yeah, I really liked the paper.” And I would reply, “I am so tired of this bland positivist narratives with their indexicality fetish. Who is the observor? Is she really going to sit and create a dialectic about tourists and natives without explaining her own outsider status?” or “Reading Dick Eaton’s book cannot make you an expert on the history of Islam in Bengal.” etc. etc. I am not saying that my objections aren’t valid. I am saying, I can stand to be not so negative. I am still mulling over the comment made by someone at some panel. “You Chicago people are harsh”. That kinda hurt me. I like to think that we pay attention to history, language and context in any presentation. I like to think that our queries are meant to provoke the speaker into furthering their presentation from the set script. I like to think that we participate in the truest form of Socratic method. Still, I do feel a bit peevish about some incidents.

Is graduate school designed to produce playa haters? Or, is it just us freaks at U of Chicago who think we are the hottest, smartest textualists left on God’s cold earth? And as one starts the transition into faculty, how does one change that attitude? The competitive edge is necessary and essential in the graduate classroom. But, it is not so hot when you are a junior faculty and need to build long term relationships and colleagues. You also have a lot less to prove. Right? Less snark. More Collegial. My New Year’s Eve Resolution [a bit late, sure.]

The God of Batting

A few days ago, I hit a perfect drive over mid-on. It was a gorgeous shot, really. The bat moving as an extension of myself. I saw the very moment that the ball hit the pitch and, seemingly, slowed down for me. I have hit that shot hundreds of time, in real matches even. During my cricketing days, I was very strong off my legs. Anything pitched short or over got its very just rewards. I was obssessed with hitting. Each and every waking moment was dedicated to playing and re-playing shots, grips, stance, footwork. I never got really good; I was too impatient. I went for my shots early and, often, didn’t follow through enough. But, once in a while, I would hit a patch of good innings. Three or four glorious innings of aggressive hitting. I was thinking about those good times this morning because I was walking to work with a cricket bat in hand. We have decided to start a local cricket club this summer and have some fun.

Serendipitously, this morning was an overly-Zen piece on Ichiro Suzuki & the Art of Hitting a Ball in the NYT. It describes how he has been on a hitting spree after making adjustments: “he experimented by moving his right foot – the front foot in his batting stance – a couple of inches away from the plate, opening his stance and spreading his legs four more inches apart.” All that gave Suzuki a lower bat-angle and a more comfortable swing and he now has a genuine shot at .400 for the season. Suzuki is amazing and the article compares him to Joe Dimaggio and, then, to Tetsuharu Kawakami aka “The God of Batting”. Now, I was with all of that but this made me stop. Because, as any cricket fan knows there is only one God of Batting and that is Don Bradman. The guy had a lifetime average of 99.94 [in 80 innings]. That is 0.04 shy of a century – the hallmark of any inning. A helluva lot more than even a lifetime batting average over .400, if you ask me.

I think that hitting the ball may be slightly easier, in technical terms, in cricket [and yes, we have been around that mulberry bush before]. But, the length of the inning and the overall concentration that is required for an at-bat at cricket is un-rivalled by baseball. Suzuki does Rule. But does he rule more than Tendulkar? Hardly. And he def. ain’t Ruling anywhere near the God of Batting. Let the hate begin.

Sunday Reading for Quixotics

It is way too cold for late April. I must migrate to the south, if I can. Last night was some discussion of what I would do to get a job at the University of Hawaii. It may not get as dire as that but Chicago weather isn’t helping right now.

  • Friday was the 400th year anniversary of Don Quixote. I totally missed it.
  • Speaking of windmills, in the New York Review of Books Thomas Frank asks, rather boringly, What’s the Matter with Liberals?. He writes, “The backlash narrative is more powerful than mere facts, and according to this central mythology conservatives are always hardworking patriots who love their country and are persecuted for it, while liberals, who are either high-born weaklings or eggheads hypnotized by some fancy idea, are always ready to sell their nation out at a moment’s notice.” Kennedy was such a whiny wuss.
  • In the Boston Globe, is a piece on our very own Ron Suny and the Armenian genocide; about the ways historians are remembering it. I wrote something about this a while ago. Maybe I will track that and re-post it.
  • In India Express, the secrets of film scripts. Almost, but not quite as, informative as this [keep hitting reload].
  • I am a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft and his tales of blobs and globs from beyond. Others complain that he is not scary. What do they know?
  • I leave you with two things: One: LRB personals ROCK. Two: Army posters ROCK.

morto un papa se ne fa un altro

I nearly underwent the Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation in the mid-nineties, after spending a few months ravenously devouring all the information on Catholicism I could find, both good and bad. I had become convinced that Catholicism, after a few fits and starts may have got it right after all. The social issues that concerned me, like the prohibitions against married priests and female clergy, appeared to be later developments, not essential to the faith, nor articles of belief. Indeed, after reading the catehcism and a couple of summaries on Canon Law, I realized that they could, and would eventually, likely be changed. Also, after reading Politi’s fantastic His Holiness, a biography of JP II, I became a grudging admirer of the former Pontiff.

Moreover, the Church’s wonderful syncretistic character – essentially gobbling up and reserving the faiths it encountered as it envangelized, even in Europe, met some of my rather pagan religious inclinations. As I am generally pro-life, and enjoy a good drag show as much as anyone else, I saw no need to quibble with the Church’s stand on life issues, nor did I see much difference between person who’d taken a vow of poverty wearing obstreperous, priceless, clerical vestments and the sequined gown of a 300 pound Marilyn Monroe impersonator. All good.

Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, esteemed Miami University Professor of Religion and also an extremely reasonable Evangelical Christian, steered my ad hoc bibliography in another direction, and suggested I read a critique of the Church called The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, which, essentially, argued that the cannibalesque doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the wine and bread are actually, really and wholly the body and blood of Christ) had no hope of survival in the age of science, and that, at best, believers whose minds, as well as hearts, are open, were better off as Protestants until the Church could be reunited in intellect as well as soul.

Seeing as how (Sepoy may disagree, as we both sat under Yamauchi’s lectern) Edwin is the shizzle fo rizzle, I let his through-a-reading-suggestion advice weigh heavily in my decision matrix. I have not regretted my decision to remain a Protestant; however, I am thankful to have received an understanding of the Church that most of my brethren, especially evangelicals and fundies, do not have.

And thus, in a great Ecumenical spirit, I watched this papal election eagerly, keening as most of you did, for a non-European Pope, and, against hope I’ll admit, a Vatican II style throwing up of hands, leading to some giving of ground that might heal what has become a damaged priesthood, a brittle dogma, and an increasingly irritating but essentially irrelevant – at least in the developed world – stance on issues relating to sex, marriage and Saturday-night at 3 am matters of personal conscience and dawnlight regret.

Came Ratzinger [via Cliopatria].

All but two of the College electing JP II’s heir were Cardinals of his own choosing, and most of them, after receiving their august right to wear red, mirrored the former Pope’s philosophical adherence to many of Catholicism’s more rigid strictures. JP II has sent us all a posthumous message: in a deluge of love for the man, we are not to forget the man’s message: the Church does not change, for society, society should change for the Church. Speculation that it would be anyone but the German theologian, in hindsight, was silly. The only positive aspect, from a perspective like mine, is Benedict XVI’s age. A three decade Pontificate is unthinkable.

The Vatican appears to be girding itself for war on two fronts: the first, an attack on the materialist consumer culture of the American-European world; on the second, a drive to secure religious liberty in places where the Church cannot operate freely. From both campaigns, good things could and likely will emerge; but I wonder, given that the world – not just many Catholics and some Protestants and some Orthodox – were pining for a restorative, progressive force to helm Peter’s boat, what does it say that His Holiness, who understandably abandoned the Hitler Youth [also see this reading], but maintains a distinctly Teutonic impulse to order and hierarchy, has assumed that position?

I believe the messages are these:

The ecumenical spirit of Vatican II, and the JP II Pontificate as it were, are likely paused.

Interfaith dialogue, may not be conducted with the same diplomatic finesse that marked JP II’s reign – will unyielding, JP II’s charisma allowed for hard issues to be discussed in good faith, where under Benedict XVI’s possible terms of debate, sit-downs themselves might be out of the question.

American influence in Europe, and European cooperation with American foreign policy, are no longer Vatican rubbers-stamps. (Though JP II made a stand on Iraq, the CIA and the Vatican intelligence service were good buddies for most of the Cold War).

The pederasty scandals in the US and Europe, which figure foremost in the mind’s of many in those populations, will be deemphasized; Benedict XVI is on record as believeing they have been blown out of proportion.

Other issues, birth control, gay rights, women priests, etc., will likely remain static, to the frustration of the Catholics trying to change those rules. As an ironic result, the priesthood will grow gayer, third world Catholics will have more children than they can support, gifted female pastors will continue their secondary roles, and Western Catholics will continue to wear their faith as a badge of culture, and wholly ignore its most vaunted non-sacramental precepts, further marginalizing the power of the clergy, and weakening the Church’s role in the west.

Finally, we should not rush to make a folk hero of the dead Pope; Ratzinger was his chief theologian, and what we may see in the coming years is nothing more than the culmination of JP II’s core beliefs, without the softening power of his smile. Let us bury the man in truth – he was like a grandfather; most loved him, but he held some antiquated ideas about how the world ought to work, and as a result many did, and will, suffer needlessly.

I hope I’m wrong, and I’m watching with great interest. Benedict XVI’s early pronouncements sound positive. Perhaps he realizes that history does not often offer times like these – when people look on at the Church with almost carte-blanche good will, when a new leader can make change, and when the whole world, not just Catholics, are in desperate want of it.