Friday, February 24, 2012

The Specificity of Experience

Cloisters Cross, 12th. c., walrus ivory, the Met
I have had this post in my head for 3 days now with nary a minute to spare and now I am tired and in between things, and when will I ever learn to HEED THE MUSE when she comes knocking?  Sigh.  But, I'm about to leave for another week-end away, an important week-end, and I want to get this idea down.  I thought almost constantly about "Monsters and Marvels" this week as we started working with medieval anti-Semitism.  Students wince and shirk and honestly don't want to know - wish it hadn't happened, don't know how to respond. I've agonized out here about showing students things in class more heinous than they would encounter in life, and host desecration accusation (and its ensuing pogroms) is right up there.  But this time, I knew what our entry point into the hate and the difficulty would be.  We'd read Kathleen Biddick's brilliant chapter "Christians Mapping Jews" from the non-stop brilliant The Typological Imagination; circumcision, technology, history in which she argues that far from a murky and unknowable depth that we should shrink away from in despair and not deal with, anti-Semitism emerges through a precise set of rational (and rationalizing) technologies.  Enter, maps, the alphabet, and printing, and abuses of history.  She cites the Paris 1240 condemnation of the Talmud (and the 1242 burning of the Talmud) as a "denial of coevalness," a primitivizing of medieval Jews.  With the Talmud, and its contemporaneous commentary "gone," the Jews became Hebrews of the "Old Testament," from a far-off time, and (and here is where urban technologies and the medieval creation of ghettos come in) a far-off place.  The students and I worked through some of the history and I started to feel the quiet and the not-talking, and so I had to stop and I had to ask rhetorically why we were reading about this - beyond the "lessons of history" model.  And what emerged is this idea of witness - that by studying this, by gaining knowledge of it, we are honoring the suffering of those who perished.  We worked hard to articulate answers to all of these awful questions, but we had to have the humility of witness as well.  And this worked, and it actually opened up conversation and students wanted to talk about the rational technologies that assure/prop up racism and homophobia as well, and these past two sessions have been honest in their limits, I feel, but reaching in their depths.

But then I look at the Cloisters Cross and the Jewish and Christian figures debating between each other upon it.  Scrolls are as gestural as hands, and the nature of the divine is debated between Christians and Jews (as it was around the Victorine school of 13th century Paris). The texts leave us with incredibly lively back-and-forths and smug Christian victories, but I wonder about the actual debates themselves, I wonder about the specificity of that intellectual (theological?) curiosity.  I wonder about the specificity of experience.  Does the experience of anti-Semitism have to speak to that of racism, homophobia, sexism - all of the ills for which we seek social justice?  Or in this call to witness, is there a call to specify, to notice this ill in its specific contours? At what point can suffering be claimed by a person instead of a people?

This might be the week-end to keep these questions in mind.  I'm off to a Posse retreat in the woods where students lead faculty members into thinking through their experiences of college, life, and everything in between. The topic for this week-end is "Gender and Sexuality."  Oof.  Posse is a smart program that brings a group of urban students to small liberal arts colleges and finds that individuals thrive within that group, aren't lost within this strange, white crowd quite so easily, and are happier - do better.  DePauw was actually mentioned in a recent New York Times article about the organization.  I'm excited (honored) to go, even as I can't possibly imagine what awaits.  The vicissitudes of academe being what they are, two week-ends ago I was in Naples, Florida with the Board of Trustees and there were cocktails everywhere and people playing steel drums in the lobby (!) for atmosphere. This week-end, we've been told to bring our own bedding and snacks as the food is "very institutional."  This might be what bonds us as we search for the specificity of experience, as we seek to witness difficulties, and maybe triumphs, too.

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