Close Encounters

A few days ago, my usual museum companion and I walked over to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art for the final day of their exhibition on The Amazing World of M.C. Escher.

Though the exhibition had been on all summer, because we’ve been distracted with viva and visa nonsense, we completely forgot.  So, when we arrived at the gallery and discovered the line to get in stretched all the way out into the street, we were somewhat dismayed and saddened, particularly because neither of us felt like waiting over an hour to be shuffled along through the exhibit.

As we stood there, watching more people arrive and join the queue, we got to talking about the desire we (people) have when it comes to seeing things ‘first-hand.’  After all, just like us, all these people had arrived for one last chance to see the gallery’s exhibition; the most devout of which were happily standing in line.

Which got me wondering: why is that?

Why do we stand in line to see a piece of art that we can see online from the comfort of home?

What’s the difference, say, of seeing Escher’s “Hand with Reflecting Sphere” in person, compared to seeing it here?

escher

Here, I can take my time with the art.  I can look at the details.  Moreover, because the internet is a swirling charybdis of creativity, I can explore more about Escher, his art, and how others have adopted, amended, and altered his work.

For instance, consider the odd experience of being ‘within’ the piece here (open in Google Chrome for optimal viewing): http://threejs.org/examples/webgl_materials_cubemap_escher.html 

So why do we stand in line to see the ‘real thing?’  Does it connect us to the work somehow?

Do we get more of a ‘genuine experience’ out of first-hand, close encounters?


These questions got me further thinking about the ‘genuineness’ there is in being close to a piece of art, and why we feel that seeing something, in person, ‘with our own eyes,’ somehow transforms that experience into something more authentic than that provided by a google image search.

Which seems even more odd to me when most people I’ve witnessed at galleries insist on taking a photo of the art itself.

Look at this image of the crowd around the Mona Lisa that I took a few years back at The Louvre:

mona lisa

That’s a swirling mess of humanity, crowding in to record, in digital imagery, their genuine experience with Davinci’s painting.

Which then causes me to wonder, perhaps being within this crowd, within that swampy room, is what makes a first-hand viewing of the Mona Lisa a genuine experience.  Perhaps it’s our perception of authenticity that’s changed.  That is, where before, simply viewing the painting was enough to create a link between the viewer and the artist, now, simply being within that crowd is what determines one’s personal interaction with the Mona Lisa as genuine.

It’s like that comparison J.Z Smith makes in his Imagining Religion between Kafka and Plutarch, and how coincidence can eventually manifest itself into ritual (53):

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned on beforehand and becomes a part of the ceremony.

At Athens, Lysimache, the priestess of Athene Polias, when asked for a drink by the mule drivers who had transported the sacred vessels, replied, ‘No, for I fear it will get into the ritual. 

We’ve amended the experience of viewing something first-hand in such a way that it has become ritual.  Thus, no more is the experience given meaning via our mere presence amongst and in front of something that we ourselves have registered as important or sacred.  Now, the genuineness of the experience is manifested by the time we spent waiting to view that sacred thing, how long the line was, and how many people we fought in order to take a picture on our phone.

We might then ultimately conclude: no wonder it seems that our perceptions of the sacred, and mankind’s connection to that sacred, appear ‘secularized.’  Which, I’d argue, is actually a misperception.  It’s not so much that the sacred is any less sacred, or that we view it that way, it’s just that we’ve forgotten to consider how our perception of the relationship between ourselves and that sacred has changed.  That is, where in the past, the ritual was determined by a specific interaction, now it’s determined by a wholly different sort of connectivity.

We no longer find ourselves in awe just of the Mona Lisa.  Rather, we’re in awe of the time it took to shuffle through The Louvre to see it, the amount of people we fought to get close to it, and the clarity of the picture we subsequently post on Facebook.

The ritual has changed.

The leopards have drunk the sacrificial liquid, and our relationship with the sacred has merely evolved to accommodate the fact that we, on occasion, forget to check when the exhibition closes.

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Thesis for Ants

A few weeks back, the reddit user (‘redditor’) /u/FaithMilitant posed the following simple question to the subreddit, /r/AskReddit:

PhD’s of Reddit. What is a dumbed down summary of your thesis?

While the resulting discussion proved rather intriguing, for my interests here, and by using it as discourse, I formed the following thesis:

This discussion represents a particular bias, or rather, a particular discursive perception of the concept ‘PhD,’ and how the public might perceive of that concept as something more predominately associated with the sciences, rather than the humanities.  


Let’s begin with how this discussion has been disseminated.

Shortly after it took place on reddit, the ‘click-bait’ website, tickled.com, published a collection of the top twenty comments.  While their version is easily accessible, I thought it might be best to list the one’s they’ve chosen here:

Does music express emotions or just elicit them? Read the next 200 pages to not find out. 
/u/Welldogmycats 


Girls take birth control. Girls then pee out unmetabolized estrogens from birth control. Pee goes to water treatment plant, estrogens not treated, male fish become female fish.
/u/Altzul


Nanoparticles are weird and I accidentally made a bomb and electrocuted myself.
/u/M33 


People trying meditation for the first time get aroused.
/u/PainMatrix


When I get rid of this gene, it messes the brain up. A lot.
/u/NeuroscienceNerd


Computer AI systems can learn to operate a warp drive and automatically build an instructional system to train people how to do it. My dissertation is probably the only one in existence to reference the Star Trek technical manual.
/u/DrBiometrics 


My experimental drug does NOT cure addiction.
/u/NotSoCleverPork 


Making new magnets from old magnets because we’re running out of magnets.
/u/IAmAHiggsBoson


Inpatients with schizophrenia are happier and socialize more in the context of a music listening group. It was obvious before we began the project and we learned nothing.
/u/Wouldyestap


Little things stick together. Here’s a slightly easier way to calculate their stickiness.
/u/Born2bwire


There are amoebas living in volcanos, but I never captured Bigfoot on film (I tried).
/u/RNAPII


We can take random pieces of bacterial DNA from beaver poop and put them into other bacteria to discover new things, like how to break wood down into biofuels. Yes, I had to dissect dead beavers and handle their poop.
/u/Geneius (account seems to have been deactivated, and the original comment has been removed)


This protein looks like it might contribute to asthma. Oh, turns out it probably doesn’t.
/u/Bear_Ear_Fritters


I crunch numbers using a supercomputer in the hopes of ensuring a fusion reactor in France doesn’t get fried on the inside.
/u/PhysicsFornicator


Two proteins touch each other in a specific place in the developing heart. No idea if it’s important for anything.
/u/Penguinpaige


I can make models of galaxies in a computer, but I can’t explain why they don’t act like real ones. Even if I bash them together or stir them around.
/u/McMillan_Astro


People sometimes think about animals as if they’re people. People like those animals a little more than regular animals. Except when they don’t. I can’t believe they gave me a PhD.
/u/too_many_mangos


Sand washes away, don’t build important stuff on it
/u/Zoidy-1


Why does a coffee stain looks the way it is, and how you can use it to make anti-laser glasses.
/u/Stockholm-Syndrom


You can make antimatter move in strange ways if you set your equipment up wrong.
/u/DrTBag


Aside from the interesting diversity of each of these ‘dumbed down’ Thesis topics, they all stand out as predominately science-based, from computer science, to biology, physics, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, zoology, psychology, and neuroscience.

So, then, how do these comments reflect a discursive perception beyond how they have been disseminated by this article?  To understand that, it might be necessary to explain a bit more about how commenting functions on reddit.

Most of these comments, chosen specifically by the author of the article (Zainab Coovadia), are what are known as ‘best comments.’  That is, within the context of a reddit discussion, since every comment made can be ‘down-voted’ or ‘up-voted,’ these comments have each amassed a large number of up-votes.

Now, if we keep in mind that each up-vote correlates to a single individual, as a user can only up-vote or down-vote a comment once (bearing in mind individuals might have more than one reddit account), then the number of up-votes for each comment equals the number of individuals who read that comment.  In the case of these ‘best comments,’ this equals out to a couple thousand individuals.  In fact, /u/Bear_Ear_Fritters‘ comment (“This protein looks like it might contribute to asthma. Oh, turns out it probably doesn’t.”) has, at the time of this writing, 8178 up-votes.

While the notion that over eight-thousand people have seen this comment points out the rather interesting manner in which the internet, and sites like reddit, assist us in presenting our research to the ‘general public,’ it also provides an intriguing discursive look at how signifiers, such as the term ‘PhD,’ are filled with meaning by large groups of people.  After all, while Coovadia may have chosen these twenty dumbed-down thesis descriptions based on their popularity on reddit, their popularity itself determines the fact that, in the context within which they exist, the notion of a ‘PhD’ is tied almost exclusively to the sciences.

As well, though this somewhat stereotypical assessment is, of course, open to a great deal of interpretative questioning (such as, is the average redditor more science-minded than humanities-minded?), as pure data, it would not be unreasonable to hypothesise that perhaps this popularity reflects a publicly perceived notion that a PhD is something usually related to research in the sciences.  This is especially so when we consider that there are a number of humanities-based comments that did not receive the same level of up-votes/views.

As further evidence of this, we might equally cite the number of news articles published recently that share a common thematic headline: ‘the humanities is an endangered species.’

Here we find a discourse crystallising the reddit discourse, though perhaps not directly.

Where with the reddit one, the meaning of the term ‘PhD’ is determined by its research within the sciences, established by the fact that the ‘best comments’ are predominately science-based.  Then, with the discourse arising out of the articles cited above, that meaning is solidified by the fact that the humanities is ‘in crisis,’ thus perpetuating the notion that a ‘proper’ PhD has something to do with the sciences.

In this way, though they are thematically unrelated, the two discourses feed into each other, further establishing the idea that a science PhD somehow carries more weight, or ‘meaning,’ than its counterpart in the humanities.

While this analytical conclusion might tell us something about the relationship between the public’s perception of a concept and the way that perception is organised and determined by the language used by sources such as the news media, it also tells us something about the efforts we must take in both describing our research, as well as how the public’s opinion might change via that description.

This might, then, equally explain the growing popularity of humanities programs that are designed to look like science programs (the cognitive science approach to the study of religion, for example), in an effort to counteract the notion that the former is something easily dismissed when school budgets are cut.

Or, more than anything, perhaps it reminds us that though there are differences between these two fields, the level of importance between a thesis that tests the accuracy, or even existence, of a Higgs-Boson, and a thesis that argues that all writing, from ethnography to a novel, is fictional by means of its ‘artificial’ nature, is in itself a fictional differentiation established by our discursive perceptions, and perpetuated by the language of random sample data.

Understanding how that works will largely influence both the future of the humanities, as well as the future of education worldwide.  After all, how can we be expected to promote and describe our research, if we can’t even control how those descriptions fit into the discourse on what it means to have a ‘PhD?’

A Stereotypical Post

It must be fall (that’s ‘autumn’ to my British-minded friends).

Here’s how I can tell.


The weather here in Edinburgh has changed.  Our one day of summer (it’s customary to say that there’s only one day of summer here) has ended and we’re back to the cold, wet, raininess that Auld Reekie is known for.


There were a few days where you could walk down any main street without either:

  1. Being struck by an individual walking backward, quickly, while looking in a completely different direction, likely gesturing to someone else about how to get somewhere in town, or where the closest Starbucks is located.
  2. Being handed a flyer for a free one man show or free stand-up comedy routine, neither of which would, in the end, be worth the price of admission.
  3. Being inundated by a chorus of different sounding ‘musical’ instruments.
  4. Having to avoid walking too close to some poor idiot in a predator costume, or an alien costume, or pretending to be a statue, or that annoying one where there’s a guy sitting on the ground holding up another guy on a pole.  People go nuts with that one.  Why?  He’s holding a pole that is balanced on the ground and the guy on top is just sitting on a board!!!  It’s not that incredible, people!!!really?!?
  5. Finding yourself in someone’s picture; or, more accurately, finding yourself in everyone’s picture of some building pretending to be the ‘birthplace of Harry Potter’ (being hit with a selfie stick is included here).

In fact, for those few days, everything seemed nice and quite and lovely.


That’s changed a bit.  The end of the Edinburgh Festival has given way to the start of a new semester.  Now, rather than thousands and thousands of tourists, it’s hundreds and hundreds of bright-eyed, nervous-looking new students.

Not only is this evinced by the influx of people you see wearing brightly coloured windbreakers and comfortable walking shoes (likely hiking boots), as they’ve been told to wear in ‘European Cities’ by experts like Rick Steves, but by their parents, loud and heavily accented, holding up the self-check out line at Tesco, buying as much ‘Scotch’ as they can fit in their luggage.


As well, it was rather obvious the other day when I had to run over to the Main Library to print off yet another form for our visa extension application.  On the way, I passed by a Starbucks, noticing a rather large line.  I normally avoid establishments like Starbucks, not because I’m one of them ‘down with capitalism’ types, but mostly cause I don’t fancy gallons of caffeinated sugar water.  When I approached the line, I also noticed something rather particular about the clientele: they were mostly young, excited, women.  Was there some sort of event?  Was it aimed at women in particular?

In fact, and as I soon discovered, the event in question was the first day that Starbucks was serving their famous Pumpkin spice Latte.

Starbucks-Pumpkin-spice-LatteSo why all the women?

Because that’s the stereotype.

For a few years now, the ‘internet’ (the collective term we give to the ever-shifting discourse of the digital highway) has had a love affair with stereotyping the Pumpkin Spice Latte with ‘white girls.’

Here’s some pretty good examples.


This definition from Urban Dictionary:

pumpkin spice latte
A drink from starbucks that many white girls drink during the fall while dressed in boots (typically uggs), yoga pants (or leggings of some sort), and a jacket.
There must have been a lot of pumpkin spice lattes at the university in the winter, because all of the girls were wearing yoga pants, uggs, and a jacket.
by Viscerous November 15, 2013

This article on Flavorwire, aptly titled: “White Women Love Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Declares the Internet.”

All these tweets, collected by the good people at Thought Catalog.

Here’s a few samplers:
Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 17.58.43Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.02.50Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.03.45Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.05.15Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.06.08

There’s also these ‘meme’ images:

latte latte 2 latte 3

These are stereotypes, and stereotypes are interesting things.

Sure, they can tell us a lot about ‘other’ people, about their customs and culture, and about the way they define themselves.  In this way, they even represent a type of discourse: language used by individuals that we perceive in a particular way, and thus the language we use to describe those ‘others’ in a way that makes sense for both their context, as well as for our description itself.

Yet, they also tell us a lot about ourselves as well, not just in how we perceive those ‘others,’ but in how we might thus be stereotyping ourselves in the process.

After all, if identity construction is all about projecting an image we want to be seen by others, which is then validated by an external entity (that other person), and vice versa ad nauseam, then aren’t we constantly being stereotyped as we stereotype others.

This is something we should all consider, particularly concerning the type of terminology not only being used in Europe at the moment concerning the difference between a ‘refugee’ and an ‘immigrant,’ but about how we perceive others on a day-to-day basis in our interactions and conversations with other human beings.

These are things you might want to think about, I suppose, the next time a barista calls you forward and hands you that pumpkin spice latte with your name written on the cup.


The cover image I used for this post comes from an instagram account set up to criticise the ‘authenticity’ of people posting images of themselves on the internet, using, of all things, a Barbie doll.  It’s really good, and is definitely worth a look:

https://instagram.com/socalitybarbie/

Live from Canterbury, It’s the Annual Conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions

Well, that’s not entirely true.  This isn’t actually ‘live’ from Canterbury.

I’m actually on the train, traveling south from Edinburgh.  We just crossed the border.

Welcome to England, have some tea.


When I moved to Edinburgh, four years ago last Friday, I arrived a week earlier than necessary, as I was told that there was ‘this conference’ that everyone goes to, and that I should come along, if I felt so inclined.  Because I had never been to an academic conference before, and in all honesty had no idea where Durham was on the map, nor any idea how to get there, I declined the offer and wandered around Edinburgh for a few days.

Since then, however, the BASR conference has always been an indicator of the new Academic year, a ‘back-to-school’ sale, if you will.  It is the last and final thing we do before starting back up.  Before we begin preparing for tutorials, and before we get back into the ‘swing’ of things.

This year, it’s a tad bitter sweet, really.  While we await the judgement of the UK Home Office on whether or not we will be permitted to stick around a bit longer, for pragmatic reasons I’ve taken to think of this as my last BASR for quite some time.  It’s silly, of course, to think that I might not ever attend another one, especially when one considers the years I might still have left to live.

Thus, I suppose that even if we are kindly requested to return to our own country post haste, this doesn’t mark the end of my relationship with the BASR.

Yet, the feeling persists.  It’s the same sort of notion I found myself thinking the last time I was in Paris (embarrassingly butchering the French tongue).  This is my last Parisian baguette, my last sandwich on the Seine, my last bottle of Cote de Provence in the Jardin de Luxembourg.

Then again, perhaps this is nothing more than the result of knowing that next week, with the BASR conference behind me, there is no new semester, no more ‘back-to-school.’  School is over, and as much as its been a relief to finally cease being a student, there’s a hole there now, and it needs filling.


At last year’s BASR conference I had the esteemed pleasure of organising, and participating in, a panel titled: Discursive and Material Approaches to the Study of Atheism and Non-Religion.  With me were three remarkable talents: Katie Aston, Lorna Mumford, and Lydia Reid.

Here’s the abstract of our panel:

Since Campbell’s (1971) call for a sociological study of the ‘irreligious,’ the field of study on Atheism, Irreligion, Non-Religion, Secularism, and Unbelief has gained a great deal of footing in differing academic circles. While this has, on one hand, generated a growing ambiguity in terminological consensus, it has also, on the other, fostered a multi-disciplinary and broad spectrum of methodological approaches. Whilst we might decry the former for presenting equivocality to the subject area, the latter is essential in engendering a diverse and richly nuanced understanding of the subject matter in general. With this in mind, this panel will present four methodological approaches to the study of Atheism and Non-Religion, from different perspectives, and with a focus on discursive and material interests in how individuals are defined, and define themselves, within the category of religion, non-religion, and Atheism. By means of these differing perspectives it will act to demonstrate the value, even necessity, in approaching and viewing such a budding subject through a number of distinct lenses.

As well, here’s an excellent description and analysis of the panel by Lorna Mumford for the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s blog:

http://blog.nsrn.net/2014/11/10/the-basr-atheism-and-nonreligion-panel/

This year, the panel that I’ve organised is a tad smaller: only two of us this time, with a very different theme.  As before, both the theme of the panel, as well as my presentation, were heavily influenced by the research I was conducting for the PhD, this time the topic is less geared toward my obsession with ‘the Thesis,’ and more about the ‘next step.’

For this panel, I am happily joined by a good friend and colleague, Clement Grene, PhD candidate in Biblical Studies at New College.  This is our second conference together.  Prior to this, we presented at the inaugural International Association for Heresy Studies conference at NYU a few years back (where we taught a number of young Americans the benefit of the conference bar), and will be presenting together again next month at the Harvard Divinity School’s annual Ways of Knowing graduate conference.

Our theme is religion and fiction, titled: Fiction in the Study of Religion: Two Case Studies.

Here’s the abstract for the panel:

The use of fiction in the study of religion is both old and new. While fictional texts, such as novels, poetry, film, and television programs have been used in the past to discuss how authors might adopt religious discourse into their imagined worlds, how that is theorized, and then analyzed, is a somewhat new endeavor. This panel will present two case studies wherein the ‘use’ of fiction will provide equally nuanced and significant approaches to the study of religion. The first presentation, by Clement Grene, will isolate this discussion by focusing on a distinct source: the literary approaches to the ‘historical Jesus.’ By looking at the narrative qualities that underscore the search for the historical Jesus, this paper will develop the idea that even when a textual analysis is meant to interpret something as ‘genuine’ or ‘real,’ it is also influenced by the fictionalization of that topic. The second presentation, by Ethan Quillen, will develop even further from this argument by presenting a discursive examination of the ‘gospel novel,’ a truly fictionalized version of the life of Jesus, written in a particularly critical way, as a source of Atheism. By developing its focus from the previous presentation, this one will provide not only a theoretical perspective on the study of ‘religion’ in fiction, but how that medium might provide for us a means with which to further experiment with the manner in which we do that.

Here’s our individual abstracts:

(Clement)

The Jesus of History and the Christ of Literature: Literary Approaches to Historical Jesus Research 

The area of historical Jesus research is one of the most hotly-contested within all of Biblical studies. Ever since the boom of the late nineteenth liberal lives of Jesus, scholars have always tended to conceptualize and write about the historical Jesus in the form of a narrative. Whether they acknowledge it or not, this means that factors such as aesthetic considerations play as important a role as historical plausibility in their reconstruction of Jesus. This paper will briefly examine a number of historical Jesus texts that are notable in this regard. Among the key ones will be Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilean; Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus, J.D. Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, Harold Bloom’s Jesus and YHWH: The Names Divine, and A.N. Wilson’s Jesus: A Life. The thread I will be tracing between all of these is to what extent each of these writers allow personal aesthetic preferences to trump historical plausibility; to what extent they are open with themselves and their readers about the fact that they are doing this; and the way in which some use an authoritative, omniscient narrator-like voice in relating their theories, making their arguments seem stronger not because they are more persuasive but because of the narrative-like qualities of their work. 

(Me)

An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse 

In many ways similar to the precarious nature of defining ‘religion,’ the meaning of ‘Atheism’ is as equally difficult to define with any sort of certainty. Not only is the term described by academics in a number of various historical and theoretical iterations, those who identify as ‘Atheist’ oftentimes do not do so in accord with other Atheists. Therefore, any attempt at stipulating a broad or useful meaning of the term is usually fraught with equivocality. Instead, we might find better success in seeking out how the term has been discursively used, avoiding the hazards of term stipulation on one end, while gaining a much more nuanced interpretation about how individuals use particular discourses in order to define their own identities on the other. This paper will be an attempt at doing this, using three novels as discursive data. As such, it will be broken into three parts: an introduction of what I mean by a ‘fictional Jesus’ and how it relates to the notion of an ‘historical Jesus;’ a description of what might entail a ‘gospel novel;’ and three examples with which to test my hypothesis that these represent a unique type of Atheist discourse. In the third part, this paper will focus much of its attention on the three texts chosen for this examination—Moorcock’s Behold the Man, Crace’s Quarantine, and Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ—striking a balance between textual and discursive analysis, by focusing on both the texts and those individuals who authored them. To conclude, this paper will make a final argument that this type of analysis not only better defines how we might use fiction in the study of religion, but also how that might more clearly provide for us a source for the ‘meaning’ of concepts such as religion and Atheism.


When we finish our panel tomorrow, it will mark the end of my third BASR conference, as well as another reminder that in the future, ‘back-to-school’ will never mean the same as it once did.  That’s ok, though.  Change is useful and good for us.  Our presentation, then, will function like a transitional conduit, an embodiment of the liminal exchange from one stage of life to the next, a door open to a new life.

Vanilla English

Leaving the XXI Quinquennial IAHR in Erfurt, I stopped off at the University for one last coffee before boarding the tram’s Liene 6 (Riethe, Erfurt) to the train station (Hauptbahnhof).  On the tram, a gentleman I’d not met at the conference shouted over the noise, “English?!”

It took me a few seconds to decipher whether he meant, “do you speak English,” or, “are you English.”

It was the latter.

He had seen that my name tag, which also functioned as a free public transport pass, had the word ‘Edinburgh’ printed under my name.

I responded, “No, American,” to which he asked: “North or South?”

I told him: “North, Southern California.”

His response, in a rather heavy accent which I, embarrassingly, was having trouble understanding, was: “Is it cold in Edinburgh?  Snow?”

Our conversation then descended into the banal, yet polite, sort of back and forth conversation that people have when limited by language differences.  We talked about the weather in our countries, and the winters in Scotland and Lithuania, before he stood to exit at his stop and bid me a friendly, “Nice to meet you, enjoy English.”


When I arrived in Berlin, I dropped off my bag at a locker, and decided to ‘walk the streets,’ which really meant, walk from Central Station (Hauptbahnhof), through the Brandenburg Gate, and then the length of Unter den Linden to Museum Island and the Berliner Dom (Cathedral).

When I passed through the Brandenburg Gate, after deftly avoiding all the people taking pictures straddling where the wall once separated East and West Berlin, I entered out onto the wide expanse of Pariser Platz.  There, in the centre, intoning loudly and with sincere passion, was a bagpiper.

He was playing “Danny Boy.”

I took a picture, lamented the fact that pipers follow me everywhere now, had a pretzel, a few pilsners, and returned to the train station a broken man.


At the airport (Schönefeld, not Tegel), I squeezed into a small section of an Irish Bar, the only place to sit and eat and drink before one’s flight (Schönefeld is a terrible airport to fly out of).  I ordered a German beer, because a Guinness or a Kilkenny felt out of place.  I also borrowed a stool from two elderly travellers, who seemed rather put out to let me have it.  It turns out, they were saving it for their coats, for when their wives returned from the duty free shop.  They let me have it, of course, though grumbled in German.  After that we politely ignored each other for a few minutes.

When the gate for my flight was announced, I noticed they too began to gather their belongings.  I politely gave them back their stool (in case they needed it) and thanked them.

One of the gentleman suddenly asked, “Oh, you speak English?”  I answered him that I did, to which he responded: “Only English?  No French, or German?”  I told him a little French (Je parle un petit peu le français), and he smiled back.

“Oh,” he said, “just plain vanilla English.  Ok.  See you on the flight.”


A few minutes later, as I stood in line to board the flight, and as my new friends slowly made their way behind me with their bags of liquor and chocolate, I found myself feeling somewhat conflicted.  I was certain that his association of my language as ‘vanilla English’ was meant as an insult, likely referring to it as being bland or boring.  However, it also seemed like an intriguing thing to analyse.

First, I thought, why do we associate vanilla with something bland?  Vanilla isn’t boring.  It’s actually rather exotic.

It was originally cultivated from the Mexican vanilla orchid, which the Aztecs called, tlilxochitl, which was then introduced to Europe via the conquistador Hernán Cortés (alongside its dichotomous partner, chocolate) in the early sixteenth century.

Since then, it’s literally traveled the world, and comes from a number of equally ‘exotic’ locations: MadagascarRéunion island, and other tropical islands within the Indian Ocean (Vanilla planifolia), the South Pacific (Vanilla tahitensis), and the West Indies, Central, and South America (Vanilla pompon).

As well, the means to produce it outside Mexico have needed to adopt ‘by-hand’ pollination, as it was originally dependent upon, and could only produce, when pollinated by a particular species of bee (Melipona).  In fact, according to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, it’s the second most expensive ‘spice’ after saffron.

Vanilla isn’t bland.

As my ticket was scanned I continued to think that perhaps this was a perfect metaphor: to call my language ‘vanilla English’ seemed, in fact, a rather apt description.  Regardless of whether or not he meant it, my new friend at the Irish Bar in Berlin was properly describing the diversity of English, exemplified by the fact that, in an Irish Bar, in Berlin, he was using it to describe my language as ‘vanilla.’

Likewise, maybe this distinction was meant as a way of referring to the English language as something accessible to all.  After all, not only is it universally used, there are in fact a number of different types of English: from British to American, Canadian, and Australian, a whole diverse world of Anglophone speakers adjusting and amending the flavour of the language with unique vernaculars and cultural and contextual influences.

Second, this association of my language as ‘vanilla’ is yet another reminder that, as a flavour, differences of perspective should not be seen as adverse to each other, but rather as individual and unique.  When combined, then, they create something new, a discourse of flavours coming together in a melange, an immersion of both likewise and disparate ideologies that develop and evolve and become something just as, if not more, meaningful because of their blending together.


On the plane, these thoughts were mixing nicely with the free wine and peanuts.  I started to think back to my presentation, which I wrote about last week, and about the differences between those of us who study Atheism (usually more history focused) and those of us who study Non-religion (usually more social-scientific).  These are like flavours, and like the idea that vanilla and chocolate are opposite, they are in fact extremely close relatives, introduced to the ‘western’ world at the same time, and from the same ‘exotic’ origin.

Thus, our language, though different, should not be seen as wholly separate or divided, but of equal essence and quality.  As I argued last week, our differences of opinion or approach don’t represent a weakness, but rather a wider discourse, leading us to a better understanding about a subject and concept, and how those whom we study go about describing themselves in a myriad of different ways.

As such, and just as how a discursive approach to the study of ‘religion’ works to release us from the precarious and difficult task of theoretically ‘defining’ the term, I find myself once again in praise of polyvocality.

After all, who hasn’t enjoyed an ice cream cone swirled with both vanilla and chocolate?


As we made our descent into Edinburgh, and I strained my eyes to make out the two towers of New College (still tragically draped in festival banners), I noticed a fly buzzing around the edges of the window.  When we landed and they opened the rear door, I caught one last glimpse of this little stowaway as it escaped into the night air.  Later, as I approached the immigration desk, I thought to myself, do you think the fly’s first thoughts, as it exited the aircraft, were:

Was soll der unsinn?  Ich spreche kein Englisch.  Wo bekomme ich ein ticket für die straßenbahn?