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Guest Post: Reflections on the Nov. 14 talk by Professor Gene Phillips

It was enlightening to see the concept of Zen Buddhism depicted in
images at the talk by Professor Gene Phillips (Professor in the
Department of Art History; Director of the Center for East Asian
Studies). One of the things that Professor Phillips discussed was how
Zen monks in medieval Japan were commissioned to paint inspirational ink
images based on koans (questions that a Zen Buddhist master gives to
his disciples in order to help them understand the concepts of “mu”
[nothingness, emptiness] and the universe’s fundamental non-duality,
which leads them to enlightenment: the goal, the ultimate state of mind,
in Buddhism).

To learn more, see Professor Phillips’s book, The Practices of Painting in Japan, 1475-1500.

Photo by Hiromi Naka, Japan Outreach Specialist, the Center for East Asian Studies

Ayako Yoshiumra, the Center for East Asian Studies

Go Big Read Films and Visual Resources

I would like to recommend some visual resources from our campus
libraries that relate to this year’s Go Big Read book, A Tale for the
Time Being

Documentary films about Kamikaze Pilots:

The Last Kamikaze: Testimonials from WWII Suicide Pilots

(streamed online; UW login needed)

Wings of Defeat (DVD)
(D792 J3 W56 2007)

Zen Buddhism:
Erleuchtung Garantiert (Enlightenment Guaranteed) (DVD)
(PN1997 E723 2000)
middle-aged German brothers travel to Japan in search of inner peace.
But many obstacles await them. Will they find the key to enlightenment?

Zen (DVD)
(BQ9449 D657 Z46 2011)
This recent feature film, starring the famous kabuki actor Kankuro Nakamura VI, relates the biography of the Zen master Dogen, who figures prominently in Ozeki’s book.

One Precept: Zen Buddhism in America

(streamed online; UW login needed)

Funeral Rites in Japan:
Departures (Okuribito) (DVD)
(PN1997.2 O387 2009)
of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, this film
chronicles an ex-cellist’s transition to a new life as a mortician in
his hometown in the Tohoku region of Japan.

Ayako Yoshimura
Japanese Studies Collection Assistant

Interview with Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney

Did you miss seeing Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney discuss her book Kamikaze Diaries at Central Library on Tuesday? If so, don’t worry! Check out this interview with Professor Ohnuki-Tierney, filmed at the Virginia Festival of the Book in 2010.  

Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers is one of the texts used by Ruth Ozeki in her research for A Tale for the Time Being, and details the lives and deaths of Japanese students drafted as kamikaze pilots during World War II.

Thanks to Laurie Wertmer of the Memorial Library Reference Department for finding this video for us!

Are you “prepped”?

It’s cold and flu season, and your friendly neighborhood Go Big Read blogger took a sick day earlier in the week and spent the afternoon on the couch.  Buried under blankets, I ended up catching a few episodes of the show Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel.

An underground fallout shelter.  Image source.

In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss recounts an interview with Vic Rantala, president of Safecastle, LLC.  Safecastle is a major seller of “prepping” materials, from meals-ready-to-eat to body armor to portable solar power generators to full-blown fallout shelters.  Vic Rantala describes how his personal experience, working as a “designated NBC – Nuclear, Biological, Chemical – specialist” in Germany during the Cold War, led to his personal belief in preparing for worst-case scenarios.  “You don’t have to be a wacko,” he says.  “You don’t have to be a gun nut.  You don’t even have to suspect the government of any conspiracies.  It’s logical to have a plan. […] What I’m selling is not necessarily protection.  What I’m selling is peace of mind. Whenever something big happens, it’s going to be something that no one expected.” (Redniss 149)

Doomsday Preppers explores the lives of people who have taken Rantala’s philosophy to heart, and are busily preparing for the end of the world, whatever form it happens to take.  Preppers stockpile food, water, and other resources; they build fallout shelters in their homes or maintain shelters elsewhere; they practice “bug out” drills (bugging out refers to quickly leaving home for a safer location in the event of an emergency) and outfit themselves with body armor, hazmat suits and, yes, weapons.  You can view clips of the show on the National Geographic Channel website, and you can even take a quiz to determine your own “prepper score.” (Your score is determined by the length of time you would likely survive in a worst-case scenario. If that’s not anxiety-inducing, I don’t know what is!)

As bizarre as this might seem to some of us, however, prepping is certainly not a new phenomenon.  Anyone who studied the Cold War in high school or college will probably remember the famous Duck and Cover video, put out by the Federal Administration for Civil Defense in 1952.  Below, a clip from the film.

 Federal Administration for Civil Defense, 1952.

These were the scariest years of the Cold War, the height of the McCarthy era, when every stranger was a potential communist and it was assumed that the Soviet Union could be deploying its nuclear weapons at any moment (weapons built, of course, on the foundation of the Curies’ research on radiation—though neither of them lived long enough to see where their research had led).  At this time, citizens were encouraged by civil defense organizations to build fallout shelters in their homes and to stockpile food, water, gas masks and other resources to help them survive in the event of a nuclear war. Today’s Doomsday Preppers are only following in a long tradition. Though the Communists with their atomic bombs may no longer be the “Big Bad” of our collective cultural imagination, there are other things to fear: global warming, government conspiracies, bioterrorism, a zombie apocalypse, the supposed “2012 prophecies,” and more.

Certainly, there are things in this world that are frightening, and preparation for certain disasters and emergencies is wise. As Vic Rantala points out, peace of mind is a valuable thing. However, sixty years from now, these prepping extremes might seem as silly and antiquated as Bert the Turtle and his “duck and cover” technique—or maybe the preppers will have the last laugh after all.

To learn more about modern-day prepping, head over to the American Preppers Network, and check out their guide to getting started in prepping.  Or visit either of these sites for more information. You can also check out Vic Rantala’s company, Safecastle, LLC.

Doomsday Preppers airs Tuesday nights at 8pm CT on the National Geographic Channel.

Brooke Williams, Go Big Read grad student

La Loïe Fuller: Danse Radioactive?

When the Curies announced their discovery of radium in 1898, the world took note–and not just the scientific community.  Many uses were proposed for the gently glowing substance, from toothpaste to house paint.  The Curies themselves began investigating radium’s possible medical uses, while the less scrupulous rushed the product immediately to market as a cure for anything that ailed consumers, whether the complaint was acne or heart disease or anything in between.

“La Loïe Fuller,” Henri Toulose-Lautrec

One figure who was particularly fascinated by radium’s potential was Loïe Fuller, a famous dancer at the Folies-Bergère.  Born and raised just outside Chicago, Mary Louise Fuller had made a name for herself as an actress on the vaudeville circuit.  By the time she arrived in Europe, however, her focus had shifted from acting to dance, and she was already well known for her Serpentine Dance, which she had begun performing in 1891.  While touring in France, Fuller found the audiences particularly receptive to her work, and she chose to remain in Paris, changing her stage name from Louie to Loïe Fuller.  She became a star attraction at the Folies, where her innovative technique and colorful performances won her the devotion of the crowd.  Fuller’s image, as depicted by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and other notable artists of the time, adorned the famous posters of Paris.

Loïe Fuller saw radium as an artistic medium.  The style of dance for which she was famous involved wildly swinging and shaking her billowing gown under colored lights, to give the illusion that her gown changed color as she danced.  She had already conducted experiments with Thomas Edison using phosphorescent salts on a black dress, and had relished the effect: her veil, when thrown into the air, “disappeared in the darkness and only the falling luminous drops were seen elongated in their descent taking on the form of great violet blue tears…these things looked ethereal, spiritual, and made me feel in touch with the supernatural.”  Now Loïe realized that radium, with its gentle glow, could produce an even more enchanting effect.

Loïe Fuller’s famous Danse Serpentine.

But the Curies turned her down.  Radium was too rare, they felt–after all, it had taken them months of work to produce even a small amount of the substance.  There were other things that could be done with it, better uses that could be made.

Loïe must have been disappointed.  But, as Lauren Redniss points out in Radioactive, she bore her disappointment well: “A moth to the Curies’ flame, Loïe Fuller came to dance in their home.” (Redniss 64)

To learn more about Loïe Fuller, check out these resources:
Loïe Fuller’s autobiography: Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life, with some account of her distinguished friends (Library catalog)
Loïe Fuller biography at Time Lapse Dance
Electric Salome: Loïe Fuller’s Performance of Modernism, Rhonda K. Garelick (Library catalog)
Loïe Fuller, Goddess of Light, Richard Nelson Current (Library catalog)

Brooke Williams, GBR graduate student

Last Two Weeks of Informing Consent Exhibit

As you plan your next two weeks on the west side of campus, please keep in mind that the popular “Informing Consent: Unwitting Subjects in Medicine’s Pursuit of Beneficial Knowledge,” closes on March 31st. Numerous classes, community members, students, faculty and staff have learned from seeing many of the themes in Skloot’s book “brought to life,” through photographs, newspaper clippings, magazines and medical journals.

History 900 Responds to the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

We are a seminar of graduate students in US history, mostly in our first semester. Because we are preparing to be professional historians, we may have read this book differently than other audiences. In our discussion, we focused less on the aspect of professional ethics in science and more time exploring how Skloot told her story, placing the story of the Lacks family within the broader context of the history of science. We almost never agreed in our response to any particular question, so here we present a range of our responses rather than our singular ‘take’ on the book. We hope that others will find the issues we raise to be of interest.While Skloot focuses her attention on the issue of professional ethics in science, we spent a lot of time discussing her own professional ethics as an author and, more specifically whether she should be held to the standards of a journalist, a historian, or an altogether separate standard.This question is complicated by the fact that her day to day profession is somewhat of a hybrid.She has worked as a journalist for a wide variety of magazines. Her book describes her as a “science writer” who has taught “non-fiction in the creative writing departments” at several universities and as a blogger. There was a discussion of how Skloot’s background as a science writer left her somewhat unprepared for the challenges of writing about issues pertaining to race and class. “How well,” several of us asked, “did she handle her responsibility to the Lacks family both during the research process and in the writing of the book?”

Our responses were decidedly mixed. One person pointed out that Skloot made the Lacks family central figures in the book. Working class blacks are usually ignored in texts; they don’t have a voice. Skloot, by keeping their experiences central, gives them a voice. She also gives examples throughout the work of how African Americans and the Lacks in particular have been mistreated. Another participant agreed: Skloot used small stories to create a context to guide readers’ understandings of working-class African Americans’ place in the story. Others built on this point, noting that the book reveals the education and information gap between different people in the United States, a gap largely determined by economic class. People speak almost separate languages, all the while living around the corner from one another in a city like Baltimore. It is a commendable act to bring this issue to light, and it shows a degree of respect for the Lacks family and their personal experiences.

On the other hand, many people (sometimes the same people) had objections or felt uncomfortable with some of Skloot’s decisions as a researcher and writer. One person pointed out that Skloot called Deborah and others in the Lacks family almost daily for a year—a kind of pressure that could be considered harassment. Another recalled that Skloot’s inquiries caused Deborah real pain and even jeopardized her health. Should she have continued? Others felt uncomfortable with how central Skloot herself was as a character in the story and thought it was a bit self-indulgent. Does Skloot, as both character and narrator, claim the voice of ultimate moral judgment? One person argued that by making herself such a significant character, Skloot implicitly cast herself as different from the rest of the scientists and journalists who had exploited the Lacks for their own gain. Does Skloot thereby reinforce the class and race privileges that allowed her to write this story, rather than someone from the Lacks family or community? Someone suggested that the story of her interactions with the Lacks family could have come in a foreword rather than structure the story. Others countered that scenes showing how hard it was for the family to talk to Skloot were essential to explaining the gulf between the Lacks family and the science community. Such scenes uncovered the material and psychological consequences of the history of scientific exploitation of African Americans, and depicted the family as complex human beings rather than as two-dimensional victims.

The other topic we discussed a great deal was, how does this book compare and contrast with a more academic style of writing common among professional historians? Most obviously, people pointed out the lack of academic-style footnotes. How we felt about the lack of footnotes, however, differed quite dramatically. Some people felt this issue made it difficult to take the book seriously, because points could not be verified or further examined. One person noticed that Skloot promised that fuller documentation would be available on her website, but perused the website and did not find it. Some accepted Skloot’s account of the Lacks family, but felt that footnotes were imperative to reveal how Skoot put together histories of Henrietta’s hometown and African Americans’ relationship to medical science. Another person noted that footnotes are part of what makes scholarship collective; historians not only use footnotes to verify sources but also as a means of taking an investigation further. Others defended the lack of footnotes, saying that the book gives immediacy to voice and speaking, and the humanity of the book is found in this quality. Footnotes would add meaning and context to the text, but would interrupt this immediacy. This immediacy is itself a sort of “truth claim” that resists critique. As scholars in a tradition that emphasizes, indeed glorifies, contextualization, we may be upset by how Skloot’s story defies our interrogations. We had an interesting discussion about how different readers establish the believability of a text. While many distrusted Skloot’s book because of its lack of notes, others found Skloot imminently trustworthy because of how she wrote about herself and the Lacks.

This led to a related conversation about what we can learn from Skloot as a writer of history and how we might endeavor to be “public historians” or “public intellectuals” or to reach a wider audience than a specialized academic one. To achieve public intellectual status, academics may make conscious decisions to write in a more provocative, more quotable, and ultimately more marketable style. We were divided about whether attention to marketability was a good or bad thing. Some felt that Skloot took liberties with source materials and made overgeneralizations to make her story more readable. We also talked about how effective it was that she followed the rule, “show, don’t tell.” We noted that in a specialized academic book, the thesis or point is expected to be very clear. Few historians end their books, as Skloot does, by telling their readers that it is not clear how they should feel about the information provided, but several of us liked the openness of this approach. Though racism is a central theme, Skloot does not discuss it in her introduction or afterward.

Giving contexts for actions and experiences is key to the historian’s craft: context provides narrative and analytical perspective. One of us noted that Skloot builds contexts by telling stories about conversations or events. Some noted that she did so by making up scenes and dialogue in ways that historians generally do not, though we also noted several instances in which historians have done so, precisely to create a more engaging read. By building her narrative around a thoroughly human story, one that is pregnant with real world ethical and political dilemmas, Skloot reminds professional historians of the power of their prose as an agent of moral inquiry. In a similar vein, one of us noted that Skloot, also like professional historians, has a commitment to creating new sources that will provide insight into the past.

Skloot’s use of a personal story to make a larger point can be an essential tool for relating the past to the present. Just as Skloot starts with the story of Henrietta and moves outward, encountering themes of racial injustice, medical ethics etc., so too our training as historians could start with a grounding in historical methodology and move outward, exploring the many styles and aspects of good writing. We look to expand our professional training by examining History in Public and the role that new technologies may play in expanding the reach and benefit of historical analysis. However, we may overlook the significance of classic forms of communication, and we seem to take for granted that we are all good writers.

Submitted by Nan Enstad, Professor of History, UW Madison, for her History 900 Seminar