The Cool Kids Table

Malcolm Gladwell, they say, re-processes academic work for the NYer crowd [so, the nyer crowd never went to college? is my oft retort]. There is, though, truth to the sentiment. We, the academics, tend to produce dense, jargony, historiographically involved, footnoted and blockquoted works that are designed mostly to get us the jobs, the tenures, the endowed chairs and the drooling collection of sycophantic graduate students. The popular press has no choice but to either have Gladwell write it or have a journalist help write it. Its success, though, clearly demonstrates that the public wants to read serious work of academia – as long as the footnotes are endnotes, there is a human-centric narration, and no mention is made of the “in-betweenness of their enunciative modality” [as blake just put it]. Then, the books sell.

In a classic case of blogging serendipity, just as I was composing this, I read Rebecca’s Thoughts on popular and academic history in which she discusses a recent popular history – Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower – which makes grand claims about debunking and demythifying history. Myths, Rebecca notes, that have been busted by two or three generations of scholars already. Philbrick, then, has built a straw-man of doddering historians, feebly clinging to ancient wisdom. As anyone in academia would be quick to point out: it is on the carcasses of our ancestors that we build our ivory towers. But Philbrick has the same need for claims of uniqueness. So, he solicits controversy.

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Knowledge is Poison

I was in Cambridge to participate in a workshop on colonial knowledge. I had no idea what I was walking into, but with dacoit on my side [a complete surprise], I figured it will be ok. It was great, actually. The participants were equal parts Africanists, SAists – historians and anthropologists. It may have been that I was the first up, and everyone was still in travel mode, but it was shock and awe! Ok, not quite that dramatic. My discussant, Chris Bayly did a fine job of showing who’s boss.

As expected, the Cambridge crowd was disdainful of poco scholars. As expected, the Chicago crowd showed their mean upbringing. What was unexpected, were the Africanists who _really_ oughta look more closely at India. In fact, as SAists, we should look to do such cool projects – to trace the policies and personnel that get tested and trained in India before implementing in Africa. I certainly have a new angle for my job interview [the all-too-eager collaborater!].

It was a rousing success of peer validation for me. Which, I assure you, never happens.

You can see a photo diary here.


The funny bit in the new edition of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is Anderson’s usage of IC… “Aside from the advantages of brevity, IC restfully occludes a pair of words from which the vampires of banality have by now sucked almost all the blood.” [via]. Ouch. Yes, some have flogged the imagining horse to death. Yet, we should take note of an earlier, more substantial engagement by Ronald Inden – Imagining India. With both of these texts, I have more than a passing familiarity, as I assume many of my readers would. Hence, I point you to Amardeep Singh’s call for papers for Imagining South Asia – a special journal issue. If it suits you, submit something. I will see if Ron wants to send along a short ‘Reflections on the usage of the term ‘Imagining’…’

Pretty in Pontiff

Pretty in PontiffWhat the Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City needs are some bright colors to lift his mood. I have depicted him here surrounded by a warm bath of candy pink to brighten up his outlook. Pink is a great color for Pope Benedict XVI, who is undoubtedly a summer. Usually in my portraits I have eschewed the use of flesh tones, but in this case, the papal visage is so pleasingly pink and fleshy that it seemed appropriate to go with verisimilitude for his skin.

Some days I feel sorry for the Bishop of Rome. He used to look so very pleased when he stood before crowds of the adoring faithful with his hands outstretched. Now he doesn’t look so good. We all know what it’s like to gun for that perfect job for a really long time, maybe decades! And then you get there, you don the ecclesiastical robes and that scrumptious golden mitre (finally!). Maybe you even crack a few too many I’m-not-a-Cardinal-anymore jokes with your old buddies: “Oh, no, I don’t think cardinal red will suit me today, but do you have anything in the gold?” And for a short time, you look in the mirror every morning and you tell yourself that it’s all paid off. It was all worth it: the stint in the Hitler-Jugend, those years in the seminary, making friends with all the right people, mastering the professional buzzwords and id√©es du jour, the lifetime of celibacy. This is it! You’re not just the Pontifex, you’re the Pontifex Maximus, and no one can take that away from you, not ever! You won’t have to live the humiliating life of a former Commander-in-Chief and go around building libraries and visiting Africa all the time. There’s not going to be the retiree’s fade-out in the golden twilight of Boca with a Sea Breeze in one hand and a bocce ball in the other. Continue reading “Pretty in Pontiff”

I Got Next

Shazia Sikander wins the MacArthur Fellowship. A fine artiste of miniatures and installations, Sikander brings the grand total of desi ‘geniuses’ to ? [Atul Gawande is the other desi winner this year. Ali Akbar Khan won it in 1991 & Ayesha Jalal in 1998 {thx, dk}] Sikander came to Chicago in 1999 or 2000. Homi Bhabha introduced her. I had some wine with chocolate. Sikander gets $500,000 cash in small bills over five years.

The Natty Professor

As an undergraduate student of comparative religion, and a Christian, I was often infuriated by the pronouncements of my professors. One, an imminent historian of religion, refused to write the word “Christ,” and instead replaced it with the Greek letter Chi, or X. When I asked him about it, he explained that he got tired of repeatedly writing the word in his lecture handouts, and instead used the Greek shorthand. I noticed, but did not mention, alas, that he had no trouble writing more complicated, longer words, and did not revert to antiquated shorthand for those. Others were less obviously hostile to the notion, or personhood, of Jesus of Nazareth, but were appropriately agnostic for a publicly funded university. They realized many of their students were Christians, or at least observant in whatever faith they held, and tried to walk the hair-wide line between objective discussion and politesse. I will never forget one esteemed doctor, whom I respect, referring to the “Jesus Myth.”

When students groaned, he explained that in comparative religion, “myth” does not hold the same definition that it does in popular parlance. For our purposes, it meant only “unprovable basis for belief,” and not “lie.” But by that time many, including me, were inured to academic doublespeak. We knew what he meant, and we knew where he stood.

For Chapati Mystery readers, the idea that academics speak in their own language will not be news. Nor will it be news that jargon serves the function of informing the initiated, while exposing difficult notions by layer to the laity. That the inability of scholars to speak to normal humans can cause problems will also go without debate. And sadly, the fact that some scholars hold wrongheaded convictions, and are shocked when others are shocked by them, is all too real.

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