Sunday, April 13, 2014

Spirit spouses and circumcision

I’ve written before about Susan Vogel’s fascinating study of the Baule and their art, African Art Western Eyes (1997). Here’s one more observation from it, this one not entirely about art.

Vogel explains that in Baule society, “[e]veryone originally came from the blolo” – the world of spirits – “and is never entirely free from relations with the spirits left behind there. Everyone had in the blolo an entire family that can continue to interfere with life after birth.” (67) Later Vogel revisits the issue, and comments that “[s]ome Baule people believe that before birth they also had parents and other relations, who—spirit mothers especially—may play a small role in their lives; but spirit spouses are ubiquitous, and are liable to influence crucial areas of one’s life at almost any point.” (247) In response, “a Baule man or woman often has a figure carved to represent and appease his blolo bla, or spirit wife, or her blolo bian, spirit husband.” (67) (For a photo of a sculpture of a spirit husband, from Vogel's book, click here.)

The resulting sculptures are a significant part of Baule art, though “the shrine or sculpture for a spirit spouse is normally hidden, like any personal shrine.” (253) As Vogel emphasizes, a lot of Baule art was actually hidden, despite its importance in Baule lives (see 291).

Perhaps one reason much of Baule art is hidden is that it may embody a striking and disturbing truth. Vogel writes:

In some sense the spirit spouse is an alter ego, a sort of opposite-sex twin of its human partner …. Spirits spouses seem to suggest the disorienting idea (found in other Baule artworks and in other parts of Africa) that humans might harbor in themselves elements of the other sex. The figures both express and remedy this contradiction by externalizing and isolating the male side of a woman and the female side of a man.” (267)

Vogel also observes that:

It is interesting and perhaps significant that most Baule groups do not practice circumcision or clitorectomy. Elsewhere in Africa, these "corrective" operations are credited with removing the male element in women and the female element in men, often for the express purpose of furthering fertility. Among the Baule, beliefs in blolo bian and blolo bla fulfill some of the functions of these procedures. (266-67)

If the Baule dissipated the psychic pressure towards clitorectomies with spirit spouse sculptures, that’s a happy result of art. But before we dismiss all this as part of a culture very different from our own, it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask what the roots of circumcision are in Western society (we don’t need to ask this question about clitorectomies since fortunately they are largely absent from the West). The Book of Genesis, needless to say, does not attribute the divine command of circumcision to sexual anxiety, but is that, in the end, what this practice stems from? Of course a practice can mean many things, one thing in one region and culture and another somewhere else. Of course, too, a practice can mean one thing when initiated and something very different thousands of years later. But still, this hint at where circumcision might have begun at least underlines the question – is this practice really a good idea?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Three Forms of Prophecy

Among the Baule people in Côte d’Ivoire, “trance diviners” – many of whom, according to one sympathetic observer, Susan Vogel, “seemed to be powerful, imaginative, charismatic, and sometimes unstable personalities who might have had a hard time living ordinary Baule lives” -- can be “respected leader[s] of the community.” (Susan M. Vogel, African Art Western Eyes 225, 227 (1997).) Vogel pays close attention to the sculptures and objects that the trance diviners acquire, and explains that: “A diviner’s reputation rests in part on his or her personal presence and ability to create a persuasive and arresting performance, a process in which mystifying and interesting-looking paraphernalia are a great asset. They attract and intrigue the audience of clients, and they increase the diviner’s success in telling the truth” – this last because the spirits, the asye usu, “sit” on the sculptures. (231, 230).

The world of trance diviners may be coming to an end, but our need to discern hidden truths has not. James Surowiecki, in an essay on “Punditonomics” in the New Yorker of April 7, 2014 discusses “the peculiar economic incentives of punditry” (at page 23 in the print edition; the online version requires a subscription). What he reports is, essentially, that there’s a great deal of reward for being right when others are wrong, but not much penalty, in many fields, for having been wrong. So “[e]xperts in a wide range of fields are prone to making daring and confident forecasts, even at the risk of being wrong, because when they’re right the rewards are immense.” Once you’ve been uniquely right, you can “live off the success for a long time” – and that despite the fact that one study found that “people who successfully predicted an extreme event had worse overall forecasting records than their peers.” Moreover, we non-experts are bad judges of experts: still another study “found that experts who claimed to be more certain were more in demand in the media, even though they were less likely to be correct.”

Unfounded predictions may be reassuring, as Surowiecki notes, “because of our aversion to uncertainty.” But it would seem that while some of us look for reassurance, others are looking for, and exploiting, information. That seems to be the gist of Michael Lewis’ account of fast trading in the stock market (an adapted portion of which appears in the New York Times Magazine for April 6, 2014); whoever gets information in the fewest milliseconds in effect knows the future, as compared to those who haven’t yet heard the news. Knowing something a few milliseconds early is neither supernatural nor intuitive; but it is real knowledge, and it has apparently been worth a lot of money to some few people.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

In memoriam

A few days ago we learned from the New York Times that our universe evidently really did result from a stunning “inflation” in first instants of the Big Bang. It’s nice to see a scientific theory confirmed; it even suggests that the universe is orderly and that humans are in the process of mastering it. But of course the discovery is confirmation that actually the universe isn’t orderly at all; apparently most of the theories that embraced “inflation” also assert that other universes are exploding into existence all the time. This is unsettling!

For me, for reasons I can’t claim are exactly logical, the idea of universe after universe exploding into simultaneous existence makes me question an argument for the existence of God that I always thought was a pretty good one: that Someone had to start the whole business rolling. Something about this new scientific account makes me doubt that logic; I feel as if a universe like this one is just so immense that the idea that it needs a starter of some sort loses its force. Maybe it just was and always will be this way.

Of course one could then call the universe God. But that seems more like sleight of hand than a real argument for the existence of God – and certainly that kind of God doesn’t have any apparent connection to our little existences. (I admit that the Starter theory doesn’t particularly suggest a God taking any part in our current lives either.)

It would be nice to think, as I know some do, that we ourselves are God – that the communities we form are truly greater than ourselves, not just as social structures but as something more spiritual. The strongest argument against that, though, is that we ourselves are such a problematic bunch; the sum of our highest and best impulses might be godlike, but the actual societies we form are far from it.

Meanwhile today I attended the memorial service of a friend who died at the age of 60 from pancreatic cancer. He was an Episcopalian, and the very warm woman minister from his church spoke of asking him, just a few days before his death, whether he was scared. He answered, in a way that she said radiated peace, “No, actually I’m a bit curious.”

That’s a good way to go. And this, as a British friend of a generation ago would have said, is for absent friends.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Law school today: a path to "almost guaranteed legal employment"?

In an article posted just a few days ago (and published at 27 Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics 55-69 (2014)), with the striking title "Keep Calm and Carry On," René Reich-Graefe of Western New England University School of Law makes the equally striking claim that "over the next two decades, the legal profession market is moving statistically into the direction of almost guaranteed legal employment for all law school graduates." (68) Briefly, his argument is that the legal profession in the US currently is quite old, and so "[o]ver half of currently practicing lawyers in this country will retire over the next fifteen to twenty years" (62) -- and will need to be replaced; that the population of the country is rising rapidly, and for that and other reasons the need for legal work will increase; and that, as a result, "recent law school graduates and current and future law students are standing at the threshold of the most robust legal market that ever existed in this country." (66)

It is conceivable, of course, that actually the way that legal problems are handled is in the process of being transformed so radically that even with retirements and increased legal needs, lawyer jobs will not keep up. (More paralegals, or more lawyers paid less in other countries, might do more of the work, for instance.) Many people fear that this is the case. But Reich-Graefe says that many of our fears are the result of panic, and he illustrates his point by dissecting one fairly prominent journalistic prediction of disaster. He suggests that lawyers' conservative and defensive inclinations, not to mention their tendency to depression, mean that "lawyers ... often respond to any perceived crisis by means of collective hysteria--rather than by the same measured, pragmatic and productive righten-the-ship-and-proceed-calmly approach which they generally employ so well and successfully on behalf of their clients." (56)

Needless to say, as a lawyer and law professor, I would like to believe Reich-Graefe is right. He acknowledges that "he makes a living as a legal educator" (55 n.*), so he too may be swayed by self-interest. But his numbers look powerful to me. Many people have indeed worried that everything is changing for lawyers, but perhaps those worries rest less on numbers than on anecdote. Anecdote can reveal truth before numbers do, yet it's also easily shaped by panic. (I realize there may be more cogent worries that I haven't focused on.)

Suppose Reich-Graefe is right. In that case, the huge upheaval in the law school market, fundamentally based on the impression that the massive student debts graduates have incurred won't earn them the prospect of rewarding employment, was a response to a painful period in the job market (there certainly has been such a period, beginning a few years ago), and not to long-term realities. I hope it is so.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Nelson Mandela remembered at New York Law School

A few weeks ago New York Law School held this remembrance of Nelson Mandela. The speakers – I’ll just say this about the other speakers besides me – were very interesting, and the gathering included a number of striking first-hand recollections of Nelson Mandela. If you'd like to watch a recording of the event, it's available at

And just in case you're interested, my talk begins 43 minutes in, and lasts16 minutes from there. As you’ll see, I argued that the fact that Nelson Mandela was a lawyer – as well as a revolutionary and a law-breaker – was actually very important to his overall achievements.