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?


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): 

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.

In Comparison a Disappointment Dwells

The title of this post is stolen from J.Z. Smith, particularly from a chapter titled “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” in his Imagining Religion.  In it, and in his uniquely erudite, yet frightfully frustrating tangential style, Smith constructs the argument that ‘comparison’ is an endeavour that leads, inevitably, to theoretical disappointment.  As he states toward the end:

[…] comparison is, at base, never identity.  Comparison requires the postulate of difference, as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodological manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end. (35)

In the contextual realm of identity construction, comparison becomes a necessary evil, the utilitarian acknowledgement of the way we identify ourselves in relation to others, how they recognise us as different to themselves, how that then dictates a two-pointed acknowledgment of opposed ‘selves,’ how we then recognise those ‘selves’ within groups, both similar and different, and in opposition to opposing groups, and vice versa, etc., in ad nauseam.

Beyond this condition, however, difference becomes, as Smith points out, ‘problematic.’  In comparison, we find ourselves not only seeing the difference between things, but how that difference reveals a bias we might have inherently developed about something we might consider ‘established.’

Here’s a good example:

In 1960, the novelist Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published.  In the fifty-five years since then, it has become almost exclusively ingrained in the American discourse, a fictional representation of a darker and more racially sinister nation, told from the perspective of a naive young girl, known as ‘Scout.’  Today, Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, will be released.  Written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but held from publication, and while a ‘sequel’ in the sense that the characters within her narrative are chronologically and philosophically developed versions of those represented in To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a very different sort of novel.  One major difference, as pointed out by a number of seemingly disappointed critics, is the ‘racism’ and ‘bigotry’ of Scout’s father Atticus, whose stalwart and passionate fight for justice created the moral backbone of To Kill a Mockingbird.  In this iteration, he is apparently, and bluntly, a very different man.

To mark this difference, and via a clever combination of two popular narratives having been recently ‘re-written’ for a new audience, the New Yorker published this cartoon:

new yorkerWhat perhaps intrigues me the most about the outcry over Atticus’ bigotry, revealed to Scout (now referred to by her real name: Jean Louise) via her sudden, almost shocked realisation that the moral compass against which she has shaped her own perception of the world is now a representative of the Southern bigotry of the 1950’s, is that I don’t think it is surprising at all.

This is where comparison comes in.

Atticus is the construction of Lee’s imagination, meaning that though we might have collectively elevated the character to the level of a paragon, a representation of a ‘good man,’ perhaps this is the Atticus that has existed all along.  That is, as the creator of the text, Lee’s notion of Atticus is really the only ‘true’ description.  Beyond that, and as readers, all we are capable of doing is perceiving that individual via the text ‘as it is.’  In other words, the shocking revelation that Atticus is a bigot, which works a wonderful magic for us as we empathise with the narrative’s protagonist, shouldn’t be all that shocking unless we have ‘established’ this character’s description in a particular way, such as Jean Louise has done.  Which reveals our inherent problem.  In our comparison of these two Atticuses (Attici?), we reveal our bias, our perception of an individual who, for the last fifty years, has meant ‘one specific thing,’ when in actuality, he’s always been this way, both in Lee’s imagination, and for the fact that Go Set a Watchman was written prior to To Kill a Mockingbird.  We are ‘shocked’ because we have betrayed our bias.  Our use of comparison has exposed our collective opinion that this individual, this fictionalised exemplar, is no longer represented in the way we had unanimously decided.

In this way, comparison breeds disappointment, simply because one thing compared with another reveals the fact that we might have been ‘wrong’ in our crystallised notion that this character was supposed to be a certain way.

Here’s a comparative example:

In 1922, Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic text, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, was published.  This text so ideally described the ‘doing’ of anthropology, not just in regard to the proper process of fieldwork, but in how that fieldwork should be translated into a realist text representative of a whole culture via select detailed parts, that it became something of a primer.  Soon, anthropology-in-general was conducted not only via his method, but his style was replicated to the point of exact duplication.  Most pertinent, perhaps, was the strict objectivity he prescribed, a complete removal of one’s opinion and voice, the evacuation of subjective notions for the benefit of objective facts.

The post-Malinowski era represented a rigorous and strict methodological paradigm: the placement of the anthropologist amongst his or her subjects, removed from his or her own culture; an immersion that required the learning of that subject’s language, their beliefs, customs, and rituals; a participant observation wherein the ‘imponderabilia,’ the native’s day-to-minutiae, would become first-hand experienced knowledge.  Moreover, this would then infect the textual representation later constructed to illustrate this subject’s culture, an omniscient and equally objective text focused with exact precision on providing the reader a vivid snapshot of another way of life.

In 1967, forty-five years after the publication of Argonauts, the anthropological advocates of this methodological precision would find themselves disappointed by comparison.

In a series of unfortunate circumstances, this year brought the publication of Malinowski’s personal diary, recorded during his time amongst the Trobriand natives.  Though he had died twenty-five years prior, and because we will never know whether he had ever intended for these personal reflections to have become publicly accessible, the content could only ever be read ‘as it is,’ and thus without his personal commentary.

Thus, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term was quite shocking.  Not only did we learn of his bizarre medical and psychological eccentricities (including an odd obsession with reading, while subsequently hating, fiction), we also came to find that he, the originator of anthropological objectivity, had a number of rather disparaging opinions about his subjects.  On certain occasions this would turn to an almost detailed hatred, not only of his subject’s way of life, but of their strange customs and culture.  Here, for the first time ever, was a subjective perspective from the paragon of an ‘objective observer.’

The result of this publication proved effectively critical to the notion that the ‘doing’ of anthropology was isolated to Malinowski’s prescribed method, to the point that over the next thirty or so years, the strict objectivity of both observing and textually representing one’s subject transitioned to a number of experimental products, including the fictionalisation of one’s fieldwork in the ‘ethnographic novel,’ and the reading of fiction ‘as ethnography,’ the latter of which I myself am guilty of exploiting.

Like my example above concerning Lee’s novels, the comparison here once again leads to disappointment, which then leads to a series of adaptations, shifts made in order to not only pacify the idea that something we once thought established has been ‘undone’ by a new perspective, but by the idea that in comparison our revealed biases must be re-established.

With both these examples, Smith’s notion of comparison, and thus the larger notion of determining a ‘difference’ between two things, reveals not just a bias on the part of the comparer suddenly disappointed by that comparison, but an impractical approach to the study of two things interrelated by an inherent similarity (such as his issue of the terms ‘history’ and ‘religion’ in his own description of himself as an ‘historian of religion’).  Thus, by comparing these two issues of comparison, we are reminded that any sort of comparison inevitably leads to disappointment, sending us further toward the need to adapt, pacify, and even re-establish our perceptions of that which we study, and further complicating the process as a whole.

BUT WAIT, you might ask, isn’t what you’ve done here just another comparison?  Did you not just compare the disappointment of Atticus’ bigotry in Go Set a Watchman with the disappointment felt by anthropologists after Malinowski’s Diary was published?

Yes, I did.  And isn’t that disappointing?

Identity Matters

For the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot about identity in the news, especially concerning the racial identity of Rachel Dolezal, who recently resigned as President of the Spokane, Washington branch of the NAACP after it was revealed that though she had been presenting herself as ‘black,’ she is, in fact, biologically caucasian.  This, accompanied by the excellent response written by my Edinburgh colleague, Chris Duncan, in regard to a Religious Studies Project podcast interview on Race and Religion with Rudy Busto, got me thinking here not just about the differences between how individuals identify themselves and how we identify them in our own ways, but about the scholastic obligations we have in ensuring we lean more toward the former than the latter.

The response to Ms. Dolezal’s ‘transracial’ identity was quite popular via a number of news outlets, some of which seemed confused, or, if nothing else, heavily opinionated about the matter.

Here’s a few examples:

While the story behind her racial identity got picked apart and discussed ad nauseam by a number of media outlets, her side of the story didn’t really appear until she sat down for a brief interview for NBC with Savannah Guthrie.  Here, Ms. Dolezal answers a number of questions, particularly about her identity, justifying how it is that she defines herself as ‘black.’  A few things stand out here that I think are worth isolating:

  • Her use of the term ‘creative non-fiction‘ in response to whether she feels she has been ‘deceptive in her identity,’ and how that has assisted her explanation as to why she identifies as ‘black.’ (0:20-0:59)
  • Her response that “nothing about being white describes who I am,” and the difficulty in defining a word that might describe that, especially as she sees herself as ‘black’ via ‘values’ and ‘lived experience.’ (3:15-3:54)
  • Her ‘physical identifiers’ that make up the ‘construct’ of ‘race’ in response to how she has changed her appearance over the years: hair, skin colour, and eye shape. (7:10-7:54)
  • Her resonation with some of the themes shared between her sense of being ‘transracial’ and Caitlyn Jenner’s ‘transgender’ identity. (9:30-10:02)

Here’s her interview in its entirety:

As well, this conversation was expanded a bit more in a separate interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s The Today Show.  This time, when bluntly asked whether she identifies as an ‘African American,’ her response is: “I Identify as black.”

While her story inspires a great deal of discussion (as it has) about racial identity, as well as the racial, ethnic, and cultural nuances that occur within a context such as the United States, Ms. Dolezal’s identity construction likewise serves as a unique insight into the manner with which we might more objectively approach these sorts of complex categories.

This, I would further argue, gives us an equally unique opportunity.  Because her story has become somewhat controversial, and because the way in which she identifies herself might be perceived by some as offensive or insensitive, it gives us the chance to remind ourselves not only of our responsibility in examining and presenting data such as this in an unbiased manner, it also provides us with a sample in which to test ourselves on how that is done.

That is, if we were to translate her story as ‘data,’ and treat her as a subject of inquiry, regardless of what that story tells us, we are required to approach and present it entirely void of our opinion on the matter.  In this way, her identity construction, as well as the language she uses in the process within her unique cultural boundaries, acts as a testimony that we might use in order to interpret her sense of self or ‘selfhood.’  Then, by observing, recording, and even re-writing her story for the benefit of an empirical research agenda, and by placing that story into the larger narrative of her contextual surroundings, we would be able to further develop a sense of appreciative knowledge about a particular aspect of American racial identity in the early twenty-first century.  As well, we could even take this information and measure it against a number of comparative sources, such as the historical background of racial development, inequality, and progression in the United States, giving us a larger chronological, and thus culturally-nuanced, perspective on the way that type of identity has developed from then to now.

In another way, the comparison she makes between her own story and that of Caitlyn Jenner also serves as an important reminder, especially about the simple, yet also precarious, role that comparison plays in these sorts of analyses.  While her sense of commonality or resonance with Caitlyn Jenner’s story is an example of her internal construction of self developing in relationship to an individual with whom she might perceive as belonging to a similar identity group, from an external position (like an anthropological or scholastic manner) this sort of comparison is neither clear, nor usually fair to make.  This has, in fact, been pointed out already (albeit, in a very different way), such as by Zeba Blay for The Huffington Post.  What’s more, this is no different than comparing like things because they look similar, such as religious identities that rest under the same broad canopy (monotheism) but that have different cultural or geographical origins (Christianity, Judaism, Islam).  For a clearer example of this, see J. Z. Smith’s “In Comparison a Magic Dwells” in his (1982) Imagining Religion.

That is to say, though Ms. Dolezal and Ms. Jenner equally share an identity that they have, individually, constructed in contradiction to their biological and genetic makeup, our perception of them should remain relative to their usage, rather than to what might be ‘expected’ of these sorts of identifiers.

Lastly, while an objective perspective on this subject might appear similar, though still somewhat different to, Ms. Dolezal’s notion of ‘race’ as a constructed or fluid ideology, in that the lack of an opinion might be translated as a type of relativism, it is also something that exists merely as a methodological constraint.

That is, as a means of analysing, recording, translating, and representing a cultural snapshot within the context of a distinct time and place, our perception of Ms. dolezal’s identity as data does not mean that we are not permitted to have an opinion.  Rather, it simply means that our use and treatment of this data must be made in a manner void of such an opinion in order to “prevent subjective views from coloring objective facts” (Geertz, Works and Lives, 9).  This is all that more important because it is our responsibility, in this capacity, to ensure our subjects have the opportunity to ‘speak for themselves.’

Said another way: identity matters.

It matters to the individuals identifying themselves, because not only does it represent how they see themselves, it establishes a sense of self that we might infect or damage via our labelling or defining them.

Thus, while to some Ms. Dolezal might seem deranged or insensitive, like a charlatan racially identifying herself in a way that might benefit her financially, or as someone drastically ignorant about, or maliciously knowledgable of, the insult her identity might inflict at this time in history, to an individual researching her as data, this does not matter.  Even if she constructs that identity via ‘creative non-fiction,’ it is not our place to state otherwise because, in simple terms, it is not something that belongs to us, regardless of our feeling of ownership.


To address any accusations that I myself did not provide an opinion here, this is my response:

Issues of racial identity are likely to arise within nations (such as the US) wherein the ethnic and racial identities of the citizens that make up that nation’s culture come from a myriad of different origins.  In response to this, comedians have attempted to address this in an equal number of ways.  As I perceive it, perhaps the three best, if not most memorable, are the links below.  I place them here as a supplement to my own opinion, a translation, if you will, of a heavily serious topic, textually transformed into a comedic response.