Monday, November 08, 2010

What do masks reveal?

The picture is a screen shot from the video Bling Bling Panda masked Nigerian musician, Lágbájá, Bisade Ologunde. I saw the video via Dangerous Minds. I was interested how Ologunde becomes Lágbájá, which means something like "a common man" by way of the mask.

American musician Johnny Cash performed in black clothing and explained his reasons in the song Man in Black
just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back/ up front there ought to be a Man in Black
Easy enough not to notice a Man in Black, harder to ignore a Masked Man.

I liked the video Bling Bling Panda a lot and if you're inclined to view videos it's worth your while. The story in the video follows a teenager's quest to be accepted by peers through acquiring bling bling. The boy comes to Lágbájá to complain and what is offered in turn to him seems all wrong, not the right kind of bling, but is right in a way too.

Last night I watched an interview of Tariq Ramadan by Harry Kreisler. Kreisler is the director of Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and has a long-running televsion program called Conversations with History. There are over 450 episodes at YouTube with fascinating people. Ramadan noted in the interview that religion cannot exist outside of culture but that religion and culture are different.

When people ask about my religious belief I say that I don't believe in God; or if they ask to describe that in terms of who I am, I say I'm agnostic. Often people say they don't believe me. I once told a friend, "I am not a Christian." He replied: "You can no more be not a Christian than I can be not a Jew." He then added with a grin, "I guess I can not be not-Christian either." This notion of being culturally Christian is complicated.

I was brought up in the Anglican tradition of Christianity. Anglicans are paedobaptists. That sound awful doesn't it? All that it means is that Anglicans baptize infants. While I have no memory of it I was baptized as a baby. Part of the ritual the priest marks on the forehead of the child the sign of the cross and proclaims:
you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever.
So I don't remember my own baptism but surely remember many baptisms. In the history of Christianity there's a great deal of persecution over the idea of baptism as it's fundamental to Christianity. So not speaking precisely theologically, rather more practically, here's one way baptism has influence me culturally. I saw babies marked as Christ's own and that's made me think of people as equal.

Because Anglicans baptize infants there is another ritual around the time kids are entering puberty. After a period of instruction in Christianity kids are confirmed, a ritual more or less repeating baptism where this time a bishop lays his hands upon the heads of kids. As children one of the things we have to learn about Christianity--there is a long list of questions we have to answer-- is the answer to the question: "What are the sacraments?" The answer in part is: "The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace..." Baptism is a sacrament and so there is a quality of it that is like: Don't look at my finger, but rather look to where my finger is pointing.

The shorter version of how baptism has impressed upon me the equality of people is in the notion "We are all God's children." Surely that's not the only lesson people might take from baptism, but it's not one peculiar only to me. While for various reasons I say truthfully that I am agnostic about my belief in God, I also have to admit that my belief in the equality of all people is fundamental to me and in this religious way.

My friend was pointing out how Christianity is rooted in me. He was pointing out both that we, growing up as we have, are culturally Christian, and that teasing out culture from religion isn't as straight forward as we might expect.

My friend recently attended his 40th high school reunion and a running theme there was being told he was the first Jew any of them had ever met. It's the sort of observation for biting ones tongue, but he wanted to say he was different in so many ways they don't know. My friend married a woman from a family of atheist, and my friend in his adult life has never been a practicing Jew. Their daughter grew up among Christians, although labeled a Jew. It was only in her first year of college she got to know Jewish kids. I smiled when she told me: This is how I describe myself. I'm Jew"ish."

The seams of religion and culture are not easy to tear apart.

Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss philosopher and theologian, a professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University. He is also the grandson of Hassan al-Banna the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Muslim revivalist organization. Ramadan was infamously denied a visa to enter the country after an appointment to teach at Notre Dame. Ramadan notes that he's culturally-Western and religiously-Muslim. He's a French-speaker, an Arabic-speaker and an English-speak. He is many differnt things. We all are.

Lágbájá is masked but like every pop star there's intense interest in his private life and gossip about it. There's an amusing story where he goes to the hospital to see a friend, another famous musician, but he arrives as Bisade Ologunde without a mask. The nurses won't give him the time of day and certainly won't allow him to visit his friend. The next day he comes to visit as Lágbájá and is ushered to his friend's bed side.

The mask obscures and reveals. One one level of course it's a gimmick, a device to be a character. But on another level obscuring his identities allows some semblance of truth about his real self. This is a part of a quality without a name. All which we identify ourselves by is not the same, or the sum total, of our being.

I found Zizek's lecture Materialism and Theology quite thought provoking. Towards the end he asks rhetorically: "What dies on the cross for me?" While he's been talking for forty minutes about theology, his posing still surprised me a little bit. Zizek is an atheist, but the question isn't posed from an objective distance but rather in a genuinely religious frame. He's not putting on a mask to mock religion, but rather to see through a religious perspective. That makes a difference.

Mary Midgley has a recent piece at Eurozine, Against humanism. And there's an essay at SSRC by Eduardo Mendieta, Religion as a catalyst of rationalization concerning Jurgen Habermas and religion in the public sphere. Zizek explicitly takes on Habermas in his lecture. The area of disagreement concerns Zizek's views on ontology which I'll write about another time. Midgley isn't explicitly mentioned by Zizek.

Youtube comments too often are mean. There are some remarks by Wolfgang Schirmacher the program director at the European Graduate School where Zizek presented his lecture. Many of the comments in re Schirmacher are to the effect: "What an ass!" But I appreciated the fact that Schirmacher directly responded to Zizek's religious framing. Zizek makes light of his irritation with Schirmacher, but suffice it to say Zizek framing is a little odd. Midgley makes an interesting point in her essay:
The language that has been developed over the centuries for talking about the mental and spiritual side of life is not some feeble, amateurish "folk-psychology". It is a highly sophisticated toolbox adapted for just that difficult purpose
It seems to me that Zizek finds the tools in the box useful so Schirmacher questioning whether he ought to be using those tools seem inconvenient to ask. Zizek is implying the question "Who is God?" matters very much and Schirmacher responds, one atheist to another: "Oh really?" (Neither are genuine quotes, but I dont think distort the exchange.)

Of course the question: Who is God? has never been simple to answer. Indeed even the word "god" is problematic as is certainly true naming. Donning a mask Bisade Ologunde becomes every man, Lágbájá. He is less a character than a question: Is there is anybody's children who can tell me: what is the soul of a man? (Bruce Cockburn video) The quality without a name is is vital.

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