Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Just So You Know

From the genius at WTF-Art History
The adjoining image was devised by the genius behind the inexhaustible font of works of art that stun and amaze. The range of spaces and popular culture references are hilarious, and remind me to consider what most students think they're in for when they come to an art history class. "Who knows?" is the only thing I can answer now. This semester has me oscillating between the wild romp that is the Renaissance to Modern survey (it's Monday, must be the Rococo! French Revolution by Friday!) and the critical confrontations that are "Monsters and Marvels." It's been actually hard to switch from one mode to another, more on the issue of pace than content (turns out critical romping is an option). I stumbled over theoretical readings on Orientalism by Said and Uebel last Thursday as it became apparent to me that students had little idea what I was talking about when I referenced the readings to the Crusades. I have a hard time teaching theory without a historical context, without any images to test the theory on. But I should have waited for the history and images this time around, let Said and Uebels have their say. Beauty of teaching is, there's always a next class, so tomorrow we're going to Jerusalem to look at the Holy Sepulcher as colonial architecture.

Mandeville and the Sultan, BN ms. fr. 2810
But in some ways what I really want to do is revisit Said and Uebel's ideas of (Western) knowledge (about the Middle East). How do we come to know the Orient? the Holy Land? Whence the certitude of our knowledge (these sure institutions that guarantee knowledge)? How does the West exercise this knowledge? And I always return and look forward to thinking about Mandeville's exchange with the sultan in which the sultan reveals all that he knows of Christianity (and it's shocking). Two remarkable men spoke at DePauw tonight: Imam Yahya Hendi and Rabbi Gerald Serotta of Clergy Beyond Borders out of Washington D.C.. The conversation was about inter-faith dialogue writ large (how does it happen? what does it mean?) but of course the most powerful force in the room was the two men's long-standing friendship and collaboration. They spoke of knowledge "from the inside" - not books about Judaism but going to a service, not television shows about Islam but working together on a Habitat for Humanity project. I asked about what we do with history (the hate speech of the Crusades, medieval anti-Semitism) and they spoke of confronting history thinking simultaneously of texts and interpretations. Texts present themselves as highly authoritative, of course, but interpretation is what keeps them alive - the point is to interpret them (and the tough ones are the ones rabbi Serotta identified as "genocidal texts" in the scriptures) towards the good. A Talmudic interpretation of the call to kill inhabitants of the land for their evil was that those evil people no longer exist, that that work is done, so move on - don't repeat. And somewhere in between texts and interpretation lies history. And beyond that us. And I'm struggling where to put images. Do they emerge with history in the space between texts and interpretation? Or do they emerge with texts? Images are not as originary as texts in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Nor are they entirely secondary. They are perceived as human manifestations of divine presence (sometimes will) in the Middle Ages - but they are, as Michael Camille always said, just as flawed in the translation of the divine word into human experience as human language (text) is. They offer a knowledge, too - not of history, not of texts, of something else. Of the process (the need) to visualize knowledge, to enliven it with gestures that provoke more interpretation.

Geez, this was going to be a funny interlude in class prep, reveling briefly in the goofiness of Academe, but Seriousness somehow prevailed. That will not do. In "homage" to the one Republican candidate whose knowledge of the Crusades prompted him to defend them (!!!), I leave you, with thanks to the dear friend who put me in the know, with what we now know him to be saying. Enjoy!

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