Крещенские морозы

The post-Soviet states have entered a sort of season within a season, called “Крещенские морозы” (Kreshchenskiye morozy), the “christening frost”. Devout Russian Christians perform a baptismal rite during this period, carving crosses into frozen lakes and rivers into which they plunge themselves. And indeed, the whole interior of Eurasia seems to have been bathed in cold white.

I don’t hide from the fact that I’m very much an amateur photographer. Nonetheless, I try to push my limited aptitudes for the sake of something rather, let’s say “concretely abstract”: to simultaneously reveal to my audience and understand for myself how the world is philosophically communicative. Significance is everywhere; deeper, higher meaning is encoded within the very empirical flesh of the universe. And insofar that humanity represents a universe within a universe, studying the interaction between the natural and the artificial can be particularly illuminating.

I’m inspired by cinematographers like Sean Bobbit and Vadim Yusov, who (depending on the film, of course) have a remarkable ability to simply dwell upon an image, giving it time to communicate various complexities to the viewer. Of course, I’ve nothing of the artistic skill or technological resources to come anywhere near their work, but I nonetheless like to emulate them in my own shoddy way. From what I’ve learned so far, a lot of the key to their success is simply knowing how to frame a shot, acquire perspective, and allow things to be.

I suppose in the image I find the patience for contemplation that, ironically, I haven’t been able or willing to find in academic philosophy. Perhaps it’s because academic philosophy, for all its desire to be contemplative, too often dissolves into contention and competition, of puffed-up (usually male) egos needing to crush phantom-opponents to demonstrate their superiority. But all the arcana and feigned transcendence really just hides an animalism infecting one of the most human of endeavors. And I suppose that having been confronted with it — not to mention having read way too much French phenomenology and having worked too many years as a worldly journalist — I instinctively want to invert the reaction: I want the world to be the space of my contemplation, not the nether realm of bodiless, riskless ideas.

Anyway, because I find Bishkek to be particularly provocative in this regard, I’ve made it my training ground of sorts. My first stab was back in August/September 2011, with my photo-essay “Bishkek in Ruins“, which I hope to follow up with a new series in the next month or so (also exploring the concept of “ruination”, but from a different angle).

So, here are a few videos and photographs which could perhaps be boiled down to “the sights and sounds of a very interesting de-industrial/re-naturalizing/post-communist/trans-ideological/Slavo-Turko-Mongolic metropol in the grips of a rather sloppily wet winter”, given with my little initial comments to give a sense of the living, dying, mutating Bishkek that I see… [I’ve re-edited this post and removed two paragraphs, which I want to use in a later reflection; best to focus here. So, please click “Continue Reading” to see the photographs.] Continue reading

Journalism as sacred dialogue

Today marks my third year as a member of the Baha’i Faith. To commemorate, I would like to explore something which I hope might be a positive theoretical contribution to my religious community: exploring and engaging in journalism as a fundamentally religious endeavor which, in its highest expression, constitutes a sacred dialogue. To develop this, I first need to take some time to explore the ways in which journalism, often rightly recognized as a scientific-like activity, nonetheless has, as it were, a religious soul.

The spiritual principle of detachment dictates that one give and then let go, so what follows herein is something that I am attempting to work out in such a spirit. It is also as much good spirituality as it is good academic etiquette to give credit where credit’s due: the phrase, “journalism as a sacred dialogue”, actually comes from one of my professors, Bart Pattyn, in response to my blog post, “Transcendental Journalism?”, wherein I describe my original intuition. The notion of “journalism with the soul of religion” is also inspired by recent work, as-yet unreleased, of my friend Ben Schewel into the notion of “religion with the soul of science”.

So, to get to the point: my essential thesis is that the journalist is a breed of philosopher as described by Edmund Husserl. As such, he or she can be understood as engaging in an activity that is quite surprisingly spiritual, to the point that it might even be described as in some sense mystical.

By claiming that the journalist is a Husserlian philosopher I mean that the journalist is a phenomenologist. Alternatively, my claim here can be understood that all critical intellectuals are phenomenologists when they are engaged in the study of experience, a definition that encompasses many of the “erudite” professions, from anthropologists to artists. In my view, the journalist and the philosopher are among those who are the most routinely engaged in such a study.  Either way, the journalist and the philosopher are blood siblings, although it is hard to see this from outward appearances — ironically, we must be phenomenologists to understand the deep family resemblance between them.

Without intending to do injustice to the complexity of Husserl’s thought, as I understand him, a phenomenologist is a person who “takes a step back” (“epoché“) from experience by assuming the stance of a “transcendental subject” in order to examine and report upon the former. Husserl could just as well have been describing the journalist. Now, in my experience, many secular Western journalists would prefer terminology like “neutral observer” or “spectator”, but my Islamic colleagues would agree with a Husserlian description of their work. That is because in traditional Islamic thought, going back to al-Ghazzali (“occasionalism“), there really is no such thing as a “neutral observer”; rather, there is the divine subjectivity that holds everything together and that only appears as a neutral observer because it is the perspective that bedrocks all perspectives:

“No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. God is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things” — Qur’an 6:103

I think it noteworthy that Husserl himself has described the “step back” with spiritual terminology: “resolved to understand the world out of the spirit”, “spiritual movement”, “religious conversion”, “fundamental transformation”, “ground experience”, “un-humanize”, and “meditation”. He probably means this in the Buddhistic sense of stilling the mind, but this terminology brings with it a contemplative connotation, namely, that the stance of spectator requires a stepping outside of one’s perspective so as to examine oneself and the world more surgically and meaningfully.

We may ask: “who” is the transcendental subject? Husserl probably has in mind the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”), which isn’t necessarily either the “I” we individually associate with, opening the possibility that it is God. I don’t know whether Husserl himself intended this (and if one reads Descartes very closely, he’s actually quite fuzzy about the relationship between the cogito and the divine), but I think the Islamic tradition makes a good case that the transcendental subject is the divine, if not the divine essence, then that aspect of the divine which is the “grasp over all vision”.

What this means, then, is that the phenomenologist — and by extension, the journalist and the philosopher — has a hugely important element of the mystical in the Heschelian or Avempacean sense of them aspiring to unite with the transcendental and absolute, thereby achieving the divine perspective, a.k.a., “objectivity” and “neutrality”. Whether they are successful and how we could assess this is an entirely different matter; what interests me here is this fundamental religiosity at the core of journalistic and philosophical work (ironically, even if the specific journalist or philosopher is a staunch atheist and opponent of religion).

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Transcendental journalism?

“In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” — Baha’u’llah, Tarzát #6

When I was in the Alps, I had a productive conversation with a young Italian student who is doing her doctoral work at the Sorbonne. She was curious about my opinion on the “faith and reason problem” as a “religious philosopher” (i.e., a philosopher who is religious and who thinks about religion). I was surprised by my answer.

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