March 4th, 2013
By Hannah Rubashkin
On Thursday, February 21, Guy Ben Porat, an Israeli lecturer from Ben-Gurion University, gave a lecture at the Columbia Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies on his latest book Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel. His lecture addressed the main questions of his book. Is secularization occuring in Israel? In what ways is it taking place? Is it connected to a particular political ideology, liberal or otherwise?
He began by making a useful distinction between secularization and secularism: the former consists of changes in peoples’ practice from religious to secular habits while the latter is an ideology that articulates the principles of liberalism as Americans from the U.S. would define it. This distinction created space for him to argue that secularization, but not secularism, was taking root in Israeli society. As examples of this secularizing behavior, he cited increases in marriages outside the Orthodox Rabbinate, shopping on the Sabbath, the selling and eating of non-kosher food, and non-religious burials.
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February 26th, 2013
By Rivka Rappoport
A response to a public conversation with Paul Lieberman, author of the Gangster Squad, at Columbia University on February 19th, 2013.
Paul Lieberman’s talk “Gangster Movies and Reality” was marked, more than anything else, by a pervasive sentiment of nostalgia. Throughout the talk, it seemed as if Lieberman longed for a world that was characterized by both the sub-system vigilante justice of the real life “Gangster Squad,” upon which the film Gangster Squad was based, and for the mobster, Mickey Cohen, whom the squad was tasked with bringing down. As Lieberman walked the audience through important dates from the biographies of Cohen and the Squad, a fascinating narrative emerged of a world in which, sometimes, the differences between lawman and mobster were merely a matter of dress.
It turns out that the real-life members of the Gangster Squad were more than worthy of dramatization—complicated, obsessive, occasionally self-destructive characters who pursued Cohen aggressively. Lieberman’s diligent delivery of the men’s bios was packed with fascinating tidbits that gestured toward the more complex film that might have been made in the blockbuster’s stead. For example, he explained that Mickey Cohen was obsessed with cleaning his hands, washing them hundreds of times a day; the image of the fastidious gangster is so unlikely and so strong that it’s a wonder Hollywood could resist. The members of the Gangster Squad had frequently interesting backgrounds, as well—one was the son of a real-life con man, another, a Texan sheriff—but these facts were delivered as though the audience was already acquainted with their names and invested in their stories.
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November 20th, 2012
By chris crews
A response to a public conversation with Wallace Broecker at Columbia University on November 13th.
As a lifelong advocate of environmental education and a student of catastrophic and apocalyptic discourses in popular culture today, I was excited to hear that Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life (IRCPL) was bringing Wallace Broecker to talk about climate change and apocalypse as part of their yearlong series Apocalypse Now, which is billed as a “series of conversations with writers that explores our current fascination with apocalyptic visions.” The talk also included NY Times writer John Broder, who covers environmental issues in Washington.
For starters, I have to admit that my level of disappointment, while certainly not apocalyptic, was pretty high after listening to someone who is considered a leading authority in the field of earth science and climate change talk about the state of ecological affairs today. I’d sum up Broecker’s comments like this:
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November 7th, 2012
By Elizabeth Wade
A response to a public conversation with Charlotte Pierce-Baker at Columbia University on October 23rd.
One of the first things Charlotte Pierce-Baker made clear in her talk on November 4th was that it wasn’t going to be easy for her. Pierce-Baker, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Vanderbilt University, is a distinguished and award-winning academic who I’m sure has given countless confident presentations in the past. Yet Pierce-Baker – and her audience – knew that this one was different. As she spoke about her recent memoir This Fragile Life: A Mother’s Story of a Bipolar Son, Pierce-Baker was keenly aware of her limitations. “I wrote the book, but it’s still difficult for me to read it to the public,” she admitted in her opening statement. This would not be a cold, academic lecture on a mood disorder; instead, it would unfold as a sensitive, almost therapeutic, discussion on the horrors bipolar disorder can wreak on the life of a family.
In order to talk openly about the debilitating effects of bipolar disorder and mental illness, Pierce-Baker deliberately created a gentle format: after reading a passage she would give the audience time to digest the material, pausing to ask questions and reminding the audience to “breathe.” The intimate audience, sitting around an oval table, followed her cue. We all took a breath together, trying to absorb the weight of the piece she had just read. Despite having read the memoir at multiple book readings, Piece-Baker is not yet immunized to the emotional weight of her material, and her presentation was raw. Though it was obviously difficult for her, Pierce-Baker’s sense of duty overwhelmed her fear of sharing such personal information. Regarding the stigma surrounding mental illness, she explained, “I have grown tired of silence.” And this was, quite possibly, the point of the evening: to attempt to break the silence. This was done haltingly, with long pauses by the author and shaky, personal questions by the audience. As Pierce-Baker told us, her goal was to start a “conversation about the conversation about mental illness.”
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November 5th, 2012
By Neshani Jani
A response to a public conversation with Reverend Jesse Jackson and Katrina vanden Heuvel at Columbia University on October 25th, 2012. View photos of the conversation here.
With the 2012 Presidential election occurring tomorrow, a Mitt Romney win would be a devastating blow to the progressive movement and would represent a step backwards on a range of issues, including rights for women, immigrants and the LGBT community, as well as strides made on healthcare, social security, labor laws and other major civil liberties developed over the past 50 years. It is important to acknowledge that while a second term for President Obama will not solve all of the country’s current problems, an Obama Presidency will continue to foster a space for social movements (both progressive and conservative) to grow and will continue to enable progressives to raise questions of consciousness that will help shape the political agenda over the next four years.
This is the main point that I took away from the discussion between the Reverend Jesse Jackson and publisher of the Nation Magazine, Katrina vanden Heuvel, on October 25th at Columbia University.
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October 19th, 2012
By Desiree LaVecchia
A response to a public conversation with George Dyson on Apocalypse Now.
According to the data analyst Eric Scott Hunsader, one second of market trade data, if printed, would produce six feet of stacked paper. What is it that is going on in the world of the digital market – guided by algorithms, not humans – where one second of data translates to a six-foot stack of paper? How does this digital universe play out into our lived experience?
George Dyson’s conversation with Mark C. Taylor last week sought to address these questions, focusing on how our digital and material worlds relate to one another.
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September 24th, 2012
By Jason Bell
A response to a public conversation with Rebecca Solnit on Apocalypse Now.
In his 1960 “Letter to the New Left,” C. Wright Mills called the work of Leftist politics “utopian” because it imagined transcendent alternatives to institutional structures. For Mills, utopianism meant simply that which was momentarily impossible. Five decades ago, an apocalypse of liberal politics not only activated the possibility of utopian thought but in fact demanded it.
Rebecca Solnit’s appearance in the conversation series, “Apocalypse Now: End Time and the Contemporary Imaginary” coincided with the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. Not surprisingly then, the talk gravitated towards liberal activism and away from its nominal topic. Solnit’s work on the aesthetics and politics of the apocalypse has redefined our discourse on disasters, and so it is unfortunate that the conversation rarely brought apocalyptic traditions and the Occupy movement into proximity. Rather, the conversation contextualized Solnit’s activism—anti-nuclear, anti-war, pro-Occupy, and otherwise—in the larger narrative of her intellectual career. Solnit learned to write while protesting nuclear test sites, where she would walk about, doing nothing other than thinking. Walking and the American West have become fixations of Solnit’s work, as in books like Wanderlust: A History of Walking and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological West. Even in these comparatively apolitical works, however, Solnit formulates a general if implicit theory of political activism, one centered on the strength of democratic communities. Judging from the conversation last Tuesday night, Solnit believes that political activity—organized rebellion against perceived inequality—is a prerequisite to an ethical life. Occupy Wall Street thus constitutes a profound expression of an ideal, perhaps utopian, democratic ethos.
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April 10th, 2012
By Mark C. Taylor
A response to a public conversation series held Spring 2012.
How many different items does the average American grocery store stock? (45,000) How many Starbucks are there in Manhattan? (187 and counting) In the world? (17,244) How many channels are there on your TV? (You don’t know.) We have become obsessed with choice — the more choices the better. Or at least so it seems. Why? Why is there so much emphasis on choice and the supposed freedom of choice?
While the freedom of choice has long been one of the most important values for democratic societies, something has changed in the past several decades. What might best be described as an ideology of choice has emerged among the partisans of neo-liberal economists and neo-conservative politicians. This development is symptomatic of the latest stage of capitalism.
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April 5th, 2012
By Michele Lent Hirsch
A response to a public conversation with Allison Macfarlane on March 28, 2012.
Listening last week to Allison Macfarlane, Harvard-affiliated member of the White House’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and author of Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste, one got the impression that if anyone could explicate the quagmire that is nuclear-waste safety, it’d be this woman. An MIT-trained geologist who went on to study nuclear reactors and their radioactive byproducts, she has a dazzlingly thorough knowledge of both nuclear power and the geological constraints on underground waste disposal.
And so when she said our grasp of nuclear safety is a joke, I didn’t find myself laughing.
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April 3rd, 2012
Is the increasing commercialization of art an effect of the widening scope of finance markets? Is contemporary art dying at the hands of capitalism? And how can we refuse the impulse to bring art down to its lowest common denominator – money?
While forcing us to address these troubling questions, Mark C. Taylor’s newest book, Refiguring the Spiritual: Bueys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy, brings critical analysis to bear on art’s decaying place in the world today.
The structure and development of financial markets and the art market mirror each other. As art becomes a progressively abstract play of non-referential signs, so increasingly abstract financial instruments become an autonomous sphere of circulation whose end is nothing other than itself. When the overall economy moves from industrial and consumer capitalism to finance capitalism, art undergoes parallel changes. There are three stages in this process: the commodification of art, the corporatization of art, and the financialization of art.”
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