A Very Clean Hand To God

Benjamin Dueholm notes that “Christians in the US, like US citizens in general, are more obsessed with health and hygiene than most” – a tendency in tension with the faith’s central sacrament, the Eucharist, based on a meal Jesus shared with his disciples:

Pasteurised grape juice was invented here, quickly and tragically displacing wine in many Protestant celebrations of communion. And I can’t say for sure, but I would bet a significant sum that we invented those tiny individual cups, too – pre-filled for sanitary personal consumption, now disposable by the thousand where washing and reusing prove too burdensome. It is even possible to buy in bulk little packages of juice and a tiny wafer, sealed up and ready to pass through the pews so that no human hand need ever approach the elements. It’s a strange fate for things that were meant to be shared and that were intended to signify or even become a human body.

These developments have periodically been hastened by pandemic illnesses. The Spanish influenza of 1918 caused local health departments to suspend communion services in some places. The swine flu outbreak of 2009 saw churches in many countries cease using a common cup for the wine. The Ebola outbreak is doing the same in the affected countries (though even this modern development has led to a familiar reaction: the insistence that the fully transformed Body and Blood are incapable of transmitting disease).

Fear of biological contagion becomes hard to distinguish from fear of social contagion. When AIDS, which is not communicated by saliva, reached epidemic levels, many churches responded with panic and anger. The act of eating and drinking together doesn’t look especially intimate until the prospect of sharing a disease is raised. Taking on the risk, however modest, of sharing pathogens is a form of social solidarity, an acceptance of the other that can touch very deep insecurities. As the historical theologian Thomas O’Loughlin put it in The Didache (2010), his account of the earliest Christians: ‘The breaching of the boundaries of Graeco-Roman society at this Christian meal is one of the miracles of the early Church.’ I’m not sure that’s less true in the age of microbiology.

The End Is High

Tom Angell points out an international agricultural effort to preserve weed after the apocalypse:

By preserving genetic material in an insulated, underground facility, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault hopes to guard against the permanent loss of plants that humanity relies on for food and medicine. According to a Marijuana.com analysis of Svalbard’s database, there are 21,500 cannabis seeds being held for safekeeping in the vault. That’s more weed seeds than there are asparagus, blueberry or raspberry seeds stored at the facility. There are more marijuana genetics in the “Doomsday Seed Vault” than there are for artichoke, cranberry and pear combined. …

The vault’s location, about 800 miles from the North Pole, was selected because of its permafrost and lack of tectonic activity. That means the seeds will stay cold even in the event of a power failure, and the bunker they’re contained in is unlikely to be cracked open by an earthquake or volcanic eruption. And, because it’s located 430 feet above sea level, the facility will stay dry even if global climate change causes the ice caps to melt.

Classic vs Contemporary Reading

Tim Parks ponders why we bother to read new books:

Isn’t there the same newness, or at least strangeness, when we tackle an older or foreign novel written in a tradition we’re not familiar with? The Tale of Genji, for example, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, or even Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian? There is, but with two important differences. A work like The Tale of Genji has already convinced millions of readers over centuries; I can go out on a limb and declare against it, but if I do so I’ll also have to ask myself why so many other people have enjoyed it over so many generations. More pertinently, the fact that I know nothing of eleventh-century Japan rather hampers me when I come to wondering whether this story is an appropriate response to the world the author lived in. When The Tale of Genji is strange to me it is likely because that world is strange to me, but not urgently so, since I don’t have to live in it myself.

Even when I read Nievo, despite having lived in Italy for thirty years and having read a few other Italian novels of the nineteenth century (not that many are in print), I really don’t know, intensely, what it was like being alive in Venice and Bologna and Milan in the early nineteenth century. I won’t react with the same engagement to [Ippolito] Nievo’s take on the 1848 revolutions as I will to, say, Martin Amis’s account of life in 1980s London in London Fields. I could make all kinds of objections to Amis’s book, for the simple reason that I was there. And I can get very excited when he hits the nail on the head (as I see it). This won’t happen reading Fielding’s Tom Jones, where half the pleasure is: Wow, how different the world once was.

A Critique Of Ableism

Reflecting on her experience working as a college administrator, June Thunderstorm questions diagnoses of ADHD, PTSD, and various allergies and phobias “that heavily credentialed people devise to shirk routine labor.” She scoffs that “there must have been at least six empathy-inducing acronyms for writing is hard, so I refresh my Facebook page all day instead“:

[N]ow, with ten years of graduate school under my belt, it’s become my job to guess how to grade papers that come with special slips marked “dyslexia”; those slips mean, basically, that I’m not supposed to judge the writing on the basis of syntax, grammar, or coherence. Of course, the dyslexic papers are always diverse—some have syntactic mix-ups that are clearly symptomatic of the disorder, some do not, some appear simply to be bad papers written by someone who did not read the book, and some are as good as the best papers in the non-dyslexic category. The non-dyslexic category involves a similar spread—a certain proportion have the syntactic mishaps that are the classic signature of dyslexia, most do not, some are terribly bad, and some are great.

What divides students with the special slip from everyone else is not always or only dyslexia.

Some students work the system—i.e., have parents who bestow on them a sense of entitlement and access to expensive special health services that it doesn’t even occur to ordinary people to ask for. Disability then turns into class power misrecognized. The rebranding of social and cultural capital via a class-encoded discourse of health allows the privileged student to get ahead with even less merit than before. After all, it is only when pain is the exception rather than the rule that it is noticed; only those who can imagine escaping their pain bother to complain about it, and only those who know the system can have the strength to manipulate it. …

You see, the assumption behind efforts to eradicate “ableism” seems to be that only some people—people with recognized disabilities, and not, for example, workers routinely in harm’s way—deserve protection from dust, paint, and lifting boxes. Only some people don’t like seeing themselves bleed. Only some people are damaged by inhaling trisodium phosphate. And only some people should get to have their papers graded easy.

Update from a reader:

As Disability Services Coordinator at a small regional university, I have about 120 students registered with my office for some form of disability accommodation, at an institution of about 4,000 students. That ratio is pretty static across the profession. About half of the registered students attest to some form of concentration disorder such as ADD, ADHD, or certain types of anxiety with varying triggers. Common accommodations for students who provide appropriate documentation include extended time testing, and a provision that ensures they can do their homework, quizzes, and tests in a quiet and distraction-free environment outside of the traditional classroom.

The accommodations they receive are emphatically NOT easier grading or anything of the sort, as June Thunderstorm seems to imply. If these students are receiving accommodations that include a wholly different grading scale in the environment of postsecondary education, those are unreasonable accommodations that fundamentally alter the academic rigor of the instruction and evaluation. No law, anywhere, requires relaxed academic standards for students with disabilities.

Disability accommodation is about creating access and opportunity, not about making things easier overall.

The Stale Gaze


Photographer John Rosenthal explains how taking photos of people, “strangers especially, can be a very tricky thing to do, ethically tricky”:

A photograph can extract people from the flow of their lives (and to some people that flow is everything). It can crop them from the lively space in which they live and have their being. A photograph can also secretly juxtapose people and objects in a highly suggestive way. Sometimes that’s a form of cruelty.

I recall a photograph I saw many years ago—I won’t say who took it—of a woman in a mink coat staring into a glittering jewelry store window on Madison Avenue.

She may have been idling away her time, as the rich often do, or she may have been returning home from a hospital visit to a friend who was ill. Her expression was haughty. The mink coat made it so. The photographer, of course, knew nothing about this woman, but she had turned her into a symbol of the bored rich. She’d played into a collective hunch about women in mink coats on Madison Avenue, and many viewers have undoubtedly nodded their heads at this faux profundity.

Of course, there are many occasions in which a stranger is the person you photographed, but that’s because they’ve already been reduced. They are holding a sign. They are angry. They want attention badly. And sometimes strangers simply want or need a photographer to tell their story. But, generally speaking, we need to be careful about what our photographs claim to know. The knowledge is often, as Susan Sontag once pointed out, “unearned.”

I rarely photograph people anymore.

(Photo by Marc Brüneke)