Sunday, September 10, 2017

Interview with the Editor: Fabricating Identities

Fabricating Identities (Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishers, 2017)
Interview with Russell T. McCutcheon

What is the main argument in this book?

This edited book is a collection of short essays, written for a wide readership, half of which originated on the blog for the research group, Culture on the Edge; they were revised and a group of new respondents were invited to work with each chapter—not just to reply but to apply it, comment on it, even critique it. The chapters all revolve around rethinking how it is that we study identity. This has been the main preoccupation of this research group for the past several years: moving from a commonsense or folk model (in which identity is assumed to be an inner sentiment somehow pushed outward into the world and thereby understood as expressed symbolically), to a more technical and sociologically-grounded model that understands identity to be the trace of prior situations and environments, ascribed to people by others, thus making identity a social and historical (that is, contingent) effect all the way down. So I guess the main argument, across all of the chapters—and put explicitly in the book’s substantial Afterword—is that scholars normalize and authorize the social worlds that allowed group members to think of themselves as a this as opposed to a that if they don’t take seriously that to study identity means to study the settings and strategies that identify people. Simply put, there’s nothing private about identity.

What motivated your work?

This is the third volume is a book series edited by Vaia Touna (all of which have pretty much the same format), but it’s the only one so far to focus explicitly on the topic of identity—or, better put, on the identification techniques that usually go overlooked when we say someone “is Canadian” or “is single.” (The other volumes are on related topics, though, such as how we create the impression of difference or how we use discourses on origins for practical effect [e.g., “Why, when I was a kid…”]) As I said above, this is the topic of our research group since, though we’re all scholars of religion, we’ve each been frustrated by how not only religion, but also, more generally, identity, is generally assumed by scholars to name some inner element, private experience, or personal affectation that is somehow pre-social and, as I said above, only secondarily pushed into the world (in a fashion that’s prone to misinterpretation). It’s an old model, of course (think of William James’s famous definition of religion—a definition that, though over 100 years old, is hardly out of fashion among current scholars); but with advances in social theory over the past few generations (not to mention much earlier writers, like Emile Durkheim, of course), it seemed time to try to press the shortcomings of that approach, at a wide variety sites that might strike readers as familiar but which could be redescribed in a more rigorously social manner—all in order to challenge readers to rethink how they talk about identity, or at least how they, as scholars talk about it, since the commonsense model we use in day-to-day life likely plays an important role in normalizing certain identities and in managing the very real possibility that you or I could start to be something else with surprising ease. Not that it’s all based on how you comb your hair in the morning, but that often overlooked labor that we expend each morning, “getting ready for the day,” more than likely plays a key role in at least one form of identity maintenance. For anyone who has, say, changed a hairstyle (or, thinking of myself, when I shaved off my longstanding beard, unexpectedly, back in my own wintery Kingston days) knows how this can throw a curve to the world around them, one that bounced back onto themselves—my fiancé at the time (and my wife since 1985) wasn’t quite sure who I was when I suddenly popped my beardless face out of my big winter coat and long scarf that cold day when we met up with each other on the sidewalk on William St. So the larger work of our research group, which lies in the background of this little volume, was premised on a wish to complicate a seemingly simple thing, since that’s what I think scholars are supposed to do. And we aimed to do that in blog posts, but doing it in a little, affordable volume, that involves even more people, who can draw on even more examples, and doing so in a way that might be useful to novice readers in this area (whether in or outside a classroom), also seemed like a good idea.

What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?

I’ve touched on that a bit already, I know, but, to be more specific, it was the work of Jean-François Bayart that got us going down this road—specifically, his book, The Illusion of Cultural Identity. My good friend, Willi Braun, at University of Alberta, brought it to my attention about 10 years ago, so, as a group, we decided to focus on his argument (which greatly complicates our casual saying that someone does X or thinks Y “because they’re Italian…” or some such poor attempts at causal analysis) in our effort to rethink how it is that scholars talk about identity. But other authors come in as well, of course, such as Rogers Brubaker (see his new book, Trans, for example, let alone much of his previous work) or Joan Wallach Scott (such as her still crucial 1991 essay on experience in the journal Critical Inquiry), not to mention Judith Butler, of course, and many others. So although Bayart was an important focus for us, such as his provocative statement that, “There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification,” this alternative model is hardly new and hardly limited to just one or two social theorists. But we found that it is applied inconsistency by scholars—hence our scholarly initiative.

How might the book be used in a classroom?

The books in this series are all pithy, by design, which helps to make them affordable but which also precludes building a whole course around them—not unless the instructor uses them as case studies rather than as a textbook. So, as someone who has never been fond of using a textbook, and thereby ceding to someone else the authority to determine what it was I was trying to do in the class and thus what students needed to read to get there, the book’s all strike me as wonderfully useful in teaching—so long as instructors can see a way to use them, as well as other things, to get their students somewhere. So I could easily see someone putting together some readings so that students had an example of how scholars traditionally talk about identity, then moving to some of the authors named above, to provide an alternative approach, while reserving a book like ours for a final unit on application—because the chapters vary widely in the e.g. they discuss. Then students could tackle an analysis of their own as a final project. For example, in one of my own chapters I talk about nothing other than crossing my legs, and how I now realize that I’ve moved in the ways that I do it, over the years, finding myself now sitting “like a gentleman” at times, or whatever you’d call that one posture, with more tightly closed-in, cross-legs, while, as an 19 year old, I never would have sat that way. I probably would be seen it as threatening to my then developing sense of self, my sense of masculinity. So what did (and what does!) that pose do to me, my sense of who I was, the way I’m seen or treated by others when I happen to be sitting somewhere, more than likely not thinking much about it. (Though sometimes we think a great deal about how we sit, how we stand, right?) So the examples each chapter uses brings home the theory, doing so in a way that might invite a student to understand that seemingly benign actions nonetheless have effects that can sometimes be far-reaching. So perhaps the student will learn how to make data of themselves and their own taken-for-granted worlds.

How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

Well, as I just said, actually: the everyday is pretty interesting if you look at it the right way. Too often, though, we pass right over it, because it’s familiar or routine, making it mundane and uninteresting. As much as we might criticize them now, we’re not all that different from our colonial-era intellectual predecessors in some ways, those who were so fascinated by the exotic “Other.” For as the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, once remarked, it’s a lot more work to make the ordinary interesting. So I think this little book, like the others in the series, tackle that very challenge.

Why did you decide to have junior scholars respond to senior ones? How might this format contribute to student learning?

Indeed—that’s another intentional hallmark of this book series. So the original members of Culture on the Edge (since the book was completed the group has expanded), Merinda Simmons, Craig Martin, Steven Ramey, Vaia Touna, Leslie Dorrough Smith, and myself, all wrote two main chapters and, as already noted, each has a respondent, who is rather earlier in their career—from still being a graduate student to people who have only recently earned their PhD degrees. So an international group, including David Robertson, Sarah Levine, Chris Cotter, Anja Kirsch, Candace Mixon, Ian Alexander Cuthbertson, Sarah Dees, Emily Schmidt, Richard Newton, Jason Ellsworth, Stacie Swain, and Matt Sheedy, took each of the main chapters in different directions, hopefully exemplifying for anyone who tackles the volume that career stage isn’t necessarily a barrier to doing interesting and innovative work in the academy. In fact, sometimes it’s people at much earlier stages that are doing the really interesting work. And if you consider the challenges now facing young scholars in the Humanities and some Social Sciences—what with declining government funding for education in many countries, and thus increasing costs and declining job opportunities—it makes a lot of sense for more senior scholars not to forget the chances that were surely presented to them, early on in their own careers, which helped them to get a leg up, as we say, and thereby become the people that they are today (again, not a bad example of the approach modeled in the book, no?). So while I’m not ready to hang up my saddle quite yet (I’ve got a couple books of my own coming out in 2018, actually, both collections of essays [one from Equinox and the other from Walter de Gruyter], plus a book I edited with Willi book due out from Oxford) this is a responsibility that I take pretty seriously. The book that I recently edited with Aaron Hughes, Religion in 5 Minutes, also comes to mind as a good example—flip through that book and you’ll see a pretty diverse number of contributors. And, again, hopefully making clear that good work is being done by a lot of interesting people in the academic study of Religion, some you may have heard of, sure, but others…? Well, you’ll probably be hearing a lot more from them in the future.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Social Functions of Obligatory Denunciations

*This post originally appeared on Craig Martin's blog

By Craig Martin

In preparation for a new course I’m teaching this fall, I’ve been reading a great deal on Islam. I’ve surveyed both scholarly and popular narratives on Islam, particularly as I hope to compare and contrast such narratives in my course. One thing that has struck me is the near-universal and apparently obligatory denunciations of “extremist Muslims,” “Islamic fundamentalists,” or “Islamic terrorism,” and of course Al-Qaeda in particular. In addition, the condemnations are presented as if obvious or common sense. It’s apparently “obvious” that the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. are “terrible” or “evil.” Interestingly, these denunciations appear even when—or perhaps because—the prose that follows goes on to historicize or contextualize the form of violence under consideration. Apparently, if one is going to offer reasons for which a group might perpetrate violence, one opens oneself to the charge that one is excusing that violence—hence the obligatory qualifications of the following sort: “before getting to the reasons behind 9/11, I want to make it clear that Al-Qaeda’s actions were evil and unforgivable.” Such denunciations, it is worth noting, appear in both scholarly and popular literature.

For all of the reasons outlined by Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, signifiers signify only in relation to their differences from other signifiers. As such, condemnations of “illegitimate” violence are meaningful only in relation to its other: “legitimate” violence. For words like “illegitimate violence” to be meaningful, there must be a contrast—implicitly or explicitly—with “legitimate violence.”

Consequently, I would argue that these obligatory denunciations of illegitimate violence have a dual social function (and here I play off of the double [and opposite] meanings given to the word “sanction”): such denunciations negatively sanction—by decrying—illegitimate violence, but simultaneously positively sanction—by implicitly condoning, absolving, or excusing—legitimate violence. Every such denunciation is simultaneously a signal of approval.

This is why the one-sided or unidirectional nature of these obligatory denunciations are so revealing: in all of the literature I’ve been reading, I’ve not seen a single obligatory and obvious denunciation of, e.g., the violences perpetrated by the United States. Even when criticized, the actions of the United States are, at worst, complicated, lamentable, unfortunate, but never obviously terrible or evil.

So, as I head back to the classroom this fall, I’m going to think before I qualify my lectures by delivering “obvious” and obligatory condemnations of the forms of violence we’ll necessarily cover. Such verbal sanctions—especially when unidirectional—function implicitly to legitimate other forms of violence.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 2

Words matter.[i] When I began to understand deconstruction as a method, I felt like I no longer knew how to speak (I’m still figuring it out). In this sense, I see pedagogy as teaching one not simply how (and not what!) to think but also how to write and speak. I understand critical religion pedagogies as teaching one how to speak and write in ways that are more conscious of the social dimensions (context and implications) of what one reproduces through discursive citation (of concepts and sources). Even then, as my supervisor is fond of saying, “if it’s difficult to step out of the box, it’s even more difficult to keep from falling back into it!”
The discourse on religion coming from a critical theory of religion or a critical religious perspective as offered in the editorials, appears to (or prefers to) remain within the ‘religion’ box without questioning how it came to be or whether it really ‘is.’ The claims made in the CRR pieces under discussion cite and enact ‘religion’ in a performative sense, bringing it into being and reproducing it, manifesting constructions and constructing manifestations. Using the term ‘enacts’ perhaps applies to all scholarship, if to differing degrees: “‘enactment’ can, in general, be understood as a less conscious and willed dimension of reproducing social and political categories.”[ii]
However, as McCutcheon points out in his Theses on Professionalization, “teaching and research are complementary activities, inasmuch as teaching, somewhat like publication, constitutes the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research.” Additionally, “The performative… is always pedagogical, and the pedagogical is always political.”[iii] Scholarship by its very nature performs or enacts a pedagogical performance that doesn’t simply stop at the end of the page.
The CRR editorial asks, “Is it time to find new ways to unmask the processes through which we position our own intellectual tasks?” Absolutely (sort of). For the most part, that’s what scholars who deconstruct and historicize the category and the study of religion aim to do, whether for their own purposes or for the intellectual satisfaction of taking things apart - that would depend on the scholar and the project, and similar scrutiny may certainly be applied to their work. Deconstructing ‘religion’ only to reconstruct it over again but ‘better’ would defeat the purpose of “unmasking” the processes through which ‘religion’ comes to be constituted as an object of study and critique in the first place.
One caveat, ending on the “unmasking” metaphor: I rather doubt that there is something really real, reachable, and readable under the mask, either within scholarship or with respect to that which scholars claim to study - something to be taken prima facie or at face value. The assumption that there are forms of religion, religions, the religious, research, scholarship, and pedagogy that should be taken at face value that can be “unmasked” is perhaps one of the fallacies of constant (re)construction built upon on ambiguous conceptual categories. There will always be cracks in the foundation - unknown, unacknowledged, unrealized, perspectives and interests, waiting in the wings to (re)construct again (and again, and again).
Deconstruction can be used to take ‘religion’ apart not only to rearrange the social features that contribute to the constitution of religion, but also to question how it is that those features came to ‘be’ and to be arranged in the first place. Critical (religion) pedagogies in the study of religion destabilize the ‘givens’ of the field in order to offer new perspectives. Fostering an awareness of the perspectives and aims of a particular approach teaches students not simply to parrot one approach or another, but to evaluate each for the work that it does both on and off the page.

[i] Anecdote: As an early, avid reader who often read words before ever speaking them, words, word usage, and wordplay has always fascinated me. As a young adult, I paid a large chunk of cash to become certified as an ESL instructor. I ended up never using it, at first due to circumstance but afterwards because teaching someone how to communicate seemed like a loaded responsibility. I try to still bring that awareness into my own work and pedagogy.
[ii]Ahmed, “Interview with Judith Butler,” 2.
[iii]Denzin, Lincoln, and Smith, Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, xi.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 1

By Stacie A. Swain

Recently I wrote a response to an editorial in Critical Research on Religion (CRR).The editorial debates a ‘critical religion’ versus a ‘critical theory of religion’ approach. An earlier piece briefly mentioned in the editorial (and in my post) asks, “Can a religious approach be critical?” and the answer from the CRR editorial board, in short, is “yes.” I’d like to muse on these thoughts a little more by pointing out that we now have three word combinations to consider when we think of what a ‘critical’ approach may entail with respect to ‘religion’:

1) A critical religion approach
2) A critical theory of religion
3) A critical religious approach

What distinguishes the first from the latter two is the contention that, as Willi Braun states, “religion does not exist; all that exists for our study are people who do things that we [or they] classify as “religious.”[i] In contrast, the latter two take for granted that there is something identifiable called ‘religion’ and that one can have the quality of being ‘religious.’ Here we have two claims (similarly named, but rearranged), presuming that #3 above is subsumed within #2. The two claims in question regard:

a)      theory that is critical of what gets classified as ‘religion’ as an object of study;
b)      a critical theory of an object of study classified as ‘religion.’

The pedagogical implications of the two approaches in question can be elucidated by considering not only such wordplay, but also the aims that they claim to work towards and how they do so. The aims of CRR state that, “our goal is not to be pro-religion or anti-religion but to understand religions in both their positive and negative manifestations.”[ii] The authors of the editorial, “suggest a more social scientific construction of the category of religion… It need not have one agreed upon universal definition, since we think such a definition is impossible, but may contain multiple definitions (after all, words have more than one meaning) derived from some common characteristics of the world’s religions.”[iii]
When thinking about teaching this approach, it would entail defining the “category of religion” according to “the world’s religions” (i.e. defining religion by referring to religions).This is, to borrow a nice turn of phrase from Tomoko Masuzawa, “intricately intrareferential.”[iv] If one invokes ‘religion’ enough then it will (seem to) appear, much like the phantasm of ‘Bloody Mary’might as one stares into the bathroom mirror; then, you study what has been invoked as if ‘it’ has always been there, and even though you’re alone in the room, as if you had nothing to do with placing ‘it’ there and naming ‘it.’ From this I gather that a critical theory of religion entails a critical approach to something given to be already and always existing, origins mystified in the processes of construction.
The editorial in question particularly critiques critical religion as having a solely deconstructive approach. To reiterate a quote that appeared in my last post: “scholarship only becomes critical when it uses values to critique sets of social actors and their particular interests… the critique needs to have a goal. It must not only deconstruct but it must construct something better beyond it.”[v]A critical theory of religion then, can perhaps be described as constructive criticism – this approach claims to construct something called religion in a ‘better’ way, using criticism to build upwards upon a foundational concept called ‘religion.’ For if it is a “positive manifestation” then it is to be praised, and if it is a “negative manifestation,” then it is to be improved. This is done according to the “values” quoted above.
The above requires the admission that what has been constructed and classified (or classified and constructed) as ‘religion,’ has been constructed badly in the first place and continues to be. This is where the question of “values” and a progressive narrative comes in – one must have a pre-established notion of ‘good religion’ and ‘bad religion’ if one is to reconstruct it. But good or bad according to whom and in what context? In a pedagogy of a critical theory of religion, does one teach values to students, values beyond those of responsible and rigorous scholarship? Is there a line separating pedagogy from personal and/or institutional ideologies? If not, is there some mechanism in place to ensure full disclosure of that ideology and the potential interests it may serve, or serve to disguise?
In contrast and speaking generally, a critical religion approach is critical of the category of religion and those forms of scholarship that uncritically perpetuate narratives of the good, the bad, and the ugly ‘religion.’[vi]A deconstructive pedagogy might include examining the productive power of these (loaded) narratives in order to draw attention to construction, context, aims, and social implications. In the Twitterverse, it appears that undergraduate students in Alabama are doing just this with respect to ideology and the media. One student concludes a report on the exclusionary politics of news media: “Recognizing how a narrative is being built is an important facet of learning to deconstruct. Through deconstruction, we take nothing on face value, and contemplate why and how things are being represented.”
Thus, what are the implications of the way that CRR represents a critical theory of religion? What are some other representation of a ‘critical’ approach? For example, there’s Matt Sheedy’s recent take over at the Bulletin: “The critical scholar does not merely cast judgments based on an affective and political aversion to the group or practice in question, but attempts to make what seems strange familiar and poses questions rather than providing concrete answers or value judgments.” I would add that the ‘familiar’ be made strange, as well.

[i]This is in “Introducing Religion,” in Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith, unfortunately I only have an electronic copy of the chapter in question at the moment, and don’t know the page number in the book.
[ii]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 4.
[iv]Speaking of both religion and culture, Masuzawa, “Culture,” 82.
[v]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 6.
[vi] For a more thorough discussion of what ‘critical religion’ is or isn’t according to specific scholars, consult the sources within the editorials discussed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Response to: “Critical theory of religion vs. critical religion”

*This blog originally appeared on Stacie A. Swain's Blog

By Stacie A. Swain,

Earlier today, I read the editorial “Critical theory of religion vs. critical religion” in Critical Research on Religion, 2016, Vol. 4(1) 3–7, by Warren S. Goldstein, Rebekka King, and Jonathan Boyarin.

To give a brief background, from what I gather, since the inception of the journal there has been debate around what exactly ‘critical’ means when it comes to the study of what we’re classifying as ‘religion.’ The triple-authored editorial characterizes three scholars (Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Craig Martin) as representing the “critical religion” approach, then makes an argument for the approach that the three editorial authors represent, that of a “critical theory of religion” (and, why it is different and presumably better than the other).

After reading the editorial, I had some thoughts of my own – perhaps we can continue the rule of three, and have three graduate students weigh in? – and as my thoughts were getting rather lengthy, I decided to post them here as opposed to in a Facebook comment. I would be delighted if anyone has a response, and would like to preface my comments with the admission that they’re shamelessly self-reflexive with respect to my own situatedness and my chosen master’s research project, a working-out-loud of my own positioning and approach. And, I haven’t read the work, except perhaps briefly, of the editorial’s authors, so take my critique with a grain of salt.The particular strand of thought that I want to pull out is:

As it stands, the approach of critical religion is solely deconstructive and not constructive; it does not build anything… It must not only deconstruct but it must construct something better beyond it. It is only through the use of values and ideals that this can be done. (Pages 4 and 6)

While now you can see why I used the term “better” above, I’d like to discuss some important points with respect to (re)construction, who gets to do it, and according to whose values and ideals (or interests?). For example, I’m studying the category of religion in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada, and deconstructing the politics attendant upon its use (by the state). Part of that deconstruction is patently pointing out that it’s not my place to construct a “better” state, but to contribute to making space for more often excluded voices to fill; not refilling that space with my own (privileged) voice, which would reproduce what I critique. As a result, I consciously draw upon Indigenous voices that outline similar interests (and sometimes sources, but I’m not sure about values) and do offer what they see as progressive constructions. I see that as possibly (but not necessarily, because I have critical doubts about my own positive influence), contributing to a discourse on social change – IF anyone wants to use my work for their own purposes, or even if it just makes someone (anyone) think twice about a statement or event.

So, while of course I’m situated/implicated, with the model that I use – that of critical religion, if that isn’t clear yet – I’m also not actively constructing a model to replace what I’ve just attempted to take apart. However, isn’t that still ‘constructive’ in a sense that is precluded by the above quote? Perhaps in a less imperialistic way, at least in this particular context? I find that a critical religion approach allows me to mitigate to some extent the fact that I am non-Indigenous and thus in the context of this literature a settler, and the social implications attendant upon accepting that as an identity claim.

In an academic context, I don’t see it as my place to decide, define, and thus impose and reproduce values and ideals either of or upon those social actors and contexts that I claim to study. This is in part because I am aware that I myself am imbricated in a social and institutional context in which certain values and ideals are often assumed, and privileged. It would therefore undermine my academic interests and yes goals, to presume to construct a new world on top of possible others. The extent to which this strategic attempt at self-effacement might apply (and work) would likely change from person to person, project to project, context to context.

As the editorial states, “[critical religion] is based on a suspicion of universal values and an attempt to socially locate them as interests. Identifying such social loci is essential.” This leads me to venture that the real issue at stake between the two positions that the editorial presents, is “social progress” according to whom, and the assumption of universal values within scholarship as well as outside of it – something “better” or “beyond.” Others prefer to describe and/or acknowledge these presumed values and ideals as another layer of interests, context-specific and socially situated, and equally open to critique.

I quote, but add italics for emphasis: “Yet, scholarship only becomes critical when it uses values to critique sets of social actors and their particular interests. It can only be counter-hegemonic when it reveals particular interests hidden behind proclaimed universal values.”
Indeed, but with the caveat that I am also suspicious of those values claimed in the first sentence.

Before concluding, I’d like to address one final and related point, and bring a third voice into the discourses represented here by the two sets of three. The editorial above can be supplemented by two posts on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion Blog, that recount a social media conversation between several of the scholars above and a few others. You can read part one, and part two. At the end, Craig Martin notes that he finds, “the voices of women in our discussion conspicuous by their absence.” And while Rebekka King is an author of the editorial above and I by no means wish to discount her voice by failing to note that, I am both adding my piece (above) and want to selectively quote another woman from outside of this debate.

While I confess that some of it is beyond me at this point in the semester (at least I can count this editorial towards my literature review, which I should be working on!), I find sections of a post on Sarah Ahmed’s blog relevant, and compelling:

The promise of the universal is what conceals the very failure of the universal to be universal. …the universal as pure or empty form, as abstraction from something or anything in particular. But remember: abstraction is an activity. To abstract is to drag away. The very effort to drag the universal away from the particular is what makes the promise of the universal a particular promise; a promise that seems empty enough to be filled by anyone is how a promise evokes someone. It is the emptiness of the promise that is the form of the universal; it is how the universal takes form around some bodies that do not have to transform themselves to enter the room kept open by the universal. 
And: no matter how convincing feminist and anti-racist critiques of universalism (of how the white man becomes the universal subject) universalism seems to come back up, right up, straight and upright, very quickly. I have also called this mechanism a “spring back mechanism.” An order is quickly e-established because the effort to transform that order becomes too exhausting. Universalism: when you push against it, you become pushy. 
Back to the same thing. 
Same old, same old.

And I think that I’ll end on that suggestive note, and add that I am very open to critique and response – I’m a newcomer in the room and I’m not exhausted yet.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Homo Religiosus?

*This post originally appeared in MARGINALIA

By Thomas J. Whitley

In 1704, Peter Kolb travelled to the Cape of Good Hope in his capacity as an astronomer and mathematician. Though he was largely regarded as failure because of his penchant for smoking and drinking, he used his time there to write an ethnography of the area’s Khoikhoi natives. The Khoikhoi had been of great interest to Europeans since the Dutch East India Company had set up a station there in 1652. Prior to Kolb’s arrival, though, the Khoikhoi were understood as an utterly primitive people who lacked any religion. Kolb almost immediately decided that this theory was “rubbish.” Just look at them, Kolb implored in his writings. Their actions were obviously religious to Kolb:
In their Customs and Institutions they cannot be said to resemble any People besides the Jews and the Old Troglodytes. They resemble the Jews in their Offerings, the Regulation of their Chief Festivals by the New and Full Moon, and in their Withdrawing at certain Times from their Wives. They agree with that People in abstaining from certain Sorts of Good; in particular, Swine’s Flesh, which hardly any of ‘em will taste. At a certain Age, they undergo a Sort of Circumcision. And Women are excluded the Secret and Management of certain Affairs, much as they are among the Jews. And in several other Customs to the Hottentots [Khoikhoi] agree with that People.*

Kolb “discovered” religion among the Khoikhoi by employing a rhetoric of similarity. Kolb already knew what counted as “religion” and needed only to find similarities between the Khoikhoi and the Jews and “Old Troglodytes.” Kolb’s thesis was a stark reversal of how the Khoikhoi had previously been viewed by Europeans and how they would later be viewed. Once the relationship between Europeans and the Khoikhoi was no longer economically beneficial to the Europeans, the Khoikhoi were suddenly again a group with no religion.

Fast forward three centuries and we are again discovering “religion” and “spirituality” among a group where it’s never before been thought to exist: animals.

This hypothesis was renewed recently after the publication of a paper in Nature that details how some chimpanzees engage in a practice whereby they throw the same stones at the same trees repeatedly. As Barbara J. King is quick to note, the paper’s authors do not call this action spiritual or religious. Rather they say that it is “superficially similar” to activities performed by humans at “sacred” trees. It did not take long for the snow ball to grow and for publications to begin asking if we had found evidence of religion among chimpanzees. This was no doubt in part due to one of the study’s authors freely suggesting as much in a post about the article.

The question seems natural enough to many people. As Jane Goodall asked of Tanzanian chimpanzees who threw rocks at a waterfall and then sat and looked at it, “why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind of spirituality?” What is striking in Barbara King’s well-written piece for the Atlantic is the way in which so many scientists engage in acts of comparison to either suggest or claim outright that animals are, like humans, religious.

In his interview with King, Donovan Schaefer, author of Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, said:
People will always debate what is and isn’t sacred, what counts and what doesn’t count as religious. But if we encountered a group of humans who returned to the same trees over and over and performed the same inexplicable action near them and didn’t seem to have any practical reason to do so, there would be lots of people who would interpret it through the prism of religion.

Schaefer is one such person. But for such acts of comparison to lead to the “discovery” of religion in animals, we must first harbor ideas about what counts as religion in humans and then project these onto our subjects. For Schaefer that includes repetitive actions that aren’t “practical.” For Jane Goodall feelings of awe and wonder are prerequisites for “spirituality.”

Yet, that we see “religion” or “spirituality” in animals says more about us than it does about them. King agrees:
I’m uneasy with making 1:1 comparisons between the meaning of human behaviors performed at trees in the forest and similar chimpanzee behaviors performed there. After all, even if we unbind religion from language, texts, and beliefs – as I think we should – isn’t it incredibly anthropocentric of us to expect other species to think and feel the way we do?

Yes, it is. But what King has missed here is that seeing “human behaviors performed at trees” as “religious” deserves just as much attention. In other words, seeing religion in humans should give us just as much pause as seeing religion in animals. For neither is a given and both call for analysis of the act of identification.

Peter Kolb’s focus on practice allowed him to favorably compare the Khoikhoi with Jews and thereby “discover” their “religion.” Jane Goodall’s focus on awe and wonder allowed her to see “spirituality” among chimpanzees. Donovan Schaefer’s focus on actions that are repetitive and impractical (to him) allowed him to see “religion” among certain animals. Had Kolb, Goodall, or Schaefer harbored a conception of “religion” that took faith or belief to be the essential component, as do many modern religious people, they would not have been able to see “religion” among the Khoikhoi or among chimpanzees.

If we have found religion or spirituality in animals, it is only because we have put it there. The world is not ours to discover, it is ours to create.

*Peter Kolb, The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope: Or, A Particular Account of the Several Nations of the Hottentots: Their Religion, Government, Laws, Customs, Ceremonies, and Opinions: Their Art of War, Professions, Language, Genesis, etc., trans. Mr. Medley (London: W. Innys, 1731), as quoted in Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 115.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Foucault, On Writing (Excerpt)

Claude Bonnefoy: How do you experience the activity of writing?

Michel Foucault: When I write, I always have something in mind. At the same time, I always address something that’s outside myself, an object, a domain that can be described, grammar or seventeenth-century political economy, or the experience of madness throughout the classical period. And yet, that object, that domain, I don’t get the impression that I’m describing it at all, of placing myself in a position of receptivity to what it says, of translating with words on paper and with a certain style a certain representation I’ve created of what I’m trying to describe.

Earlier, I said that I’m trying to reveal the distance I have, that we have to these things; my writing is the discovery of that distance. I’d add that, in one sense, my head is empty when I begin to write, even though my mind is always directed toward a specific object. Obviously, that means that, for me, writing is an exhausting activity, very difficult, filled with anxiety. I’m always afraid of messing up; naturally, I mess up, I fail all the time. This means that what encourages me to write isn’t so much the discovery or certainty of a certain relationship, of a certain truth, but rather the feeling I have of a certain kind of writing, a certain mode of operation of my writing, a certain style that will bring that distance into focus.

For example, one day in Madrid, I had been fascinated by Velázquez’s Las Meninas. I’d been looking at the painting for a long time, just like that, without thinking about talking about it someday, much less of describing it—which at the time would have seemed derisive and ridiculous. And then one day, I don’t recall how, without having looked at it since, without even having looked at a reproduction, I had this urge to write about the painting from memory, to describe what was in it. As soon as I tried to describe it, a certain coloration of language, a certain rhythm, a certain form of analysis, especially, gave me the impression, the near certainty—false, perhaps—that I had found exactly the right language by which the distance between ourselves and the classical philosophy of representation and classical ideas of order and resemblance could come into focus and be evaluated. That’s how I began to write The Order of Things. For that book I used material I had gathered in the preceding years almost at random, without knowing what I would do with it, with no certainty about the possibility of ever writing an essay. In a way it was like examining a kind of inert material, an abandoned garden of some sort, an unusable expanse, which I surveyed the way I imagine the sculptor of old, the sculptor of the seventeenth or eighteenth century, might contemplate, might touch the block of marble he didn’t yet know what to do with.

Excerpt from: Michel Foucault, Speech Begins after Death, In Conversation with Claude Bonnefoy, ed. by Philippe Artières and trans. by Robert Bononno (Minnesota: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2013), pp. 78-81.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Diversity is Not Enough (Harvard's Concealed Theology)

By Tenzan Eaghll

Did you catch the article that was making the rounds on Facebook last month about a new free online course on religion being offered by Harvard's Divinity School? The course seeks to improve tolerance and understanding about religion by improving religious literacy. Titled "Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures," the course includes six classes on different topics and will be followed by more specific courses on Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism.

Although the course pretends to be theoretically innovative, it is actually just a repackaging of the old "seven dimensions" model established by Ninian Smart. For starters, the website states that, "The study of religion is the study of a rich and fascinating dimension of human experience that includes but goes well beyond beliefs and ritual practices."  Just like Smart, who identified religion as a unique aspect of human experience and claimed that it has various social dimensions that can be studied cross-culturally, the course designers at Harvard have provided an empirical basis for studying non-empirical phenomena. They have preserved the confessional approach to religious education in a scientific language.

The core objectives of the course are to teach learners that (1) religions are internally diverse, (2) how they evolve and change through time, and (3) how religions are embedded in all dimensions of human experience. It is important to note how they never actually interrogate the meaning of  "religion, " but merely pass the buck, so to speak, and suggest that religion is produced by a series of dimensions that are defined as religious. Here is the YouTube advertisement for the course:

Notice how they simultaneously suggest that religions do not function in isolation from their political, economic, and cultural contexts,  yet still claim that it is impossible to understand a culture without considering its religious dimensions? This classic phenomenological move attempts to define religion by mundane acts like belief and ritual practice, while simultaneously isolating something that goes well beyond them. 

Of course, by incorporating the social and material elements into their definition of religion, courses like this are certainly an improvement upon a purely theological analysis of the subject, but by failing to submit the category itself to analysis they continue to present religion as sui generis. After all, if "religion and culture" are inseparable, how are they able to refer to religion as something unique that exceeds the limits of human practice?

I would suggest that this attempt to contextualize religion while also preserving its unique qualities is a value laden approach to the subject that does not help us to the understand the complexity of the world we live in, but merely functions as a theological tool to separate religion from other aspects of culture. In the vein of Smart, what the course designers at Harvard seek to create is a "federalism of tolerance" by concealing a theological agenda in a secular guise. The idea that religion is a unique phenomenon distinct from other aspects of culture, such as music or philosophy, is a theological claim that prioritizes religious experience. Simply diversifying the forms of religion and its plurality in history does not correct the misunderstanding about religion. Diversity is not enough. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes

*This post originally appeared in Jeff Noonan: Interventions and Evocations

1. Teaching at the university level is not a practice of communicating or transferring information but awakening in students a desire to think by revealing to them the questionability of things. The desire to think is awakened in students if the teacher is able to reveal the importance of the discipline as a way of exposing to question established “solutions” to fundamental problems of human experience, thought, activity, relationship, and organization. Teaching does not instruct or transmit information, it embodies and exemplifies the commitment to thinking.

2. True teaching is thus a practice, a performance of cognitive freedom which awakens in students a sense of their own cognitive freedom. Both are rooted in the most remarkable power of the brain: not to simulate, not to sense, not to tabulate, not to infer, but to co-constitute the objective world of which it is an active part. In thinking we do not just passively register the world, we transform it by making it the object of thought, i.e, an object that can be questioned and changed.  To think is thus to cancel the alien objectivity of the world and to become a subject, an active force helping to shape the order of things.

3. All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives. This result is very different from mastering a certain body of knowledge or learning to apply certain rules to well-defined situations. To love to think is identical to feel and be moved by the need to question: the given structure of knowledge in the discipline, its application to the problem-domain of human life that the discipline ranges over, the overarching structures of human social life within which the discipline or subject matter has its place, and the overall problems of life as a mortal, finite being. To love to think means to remain alive to the questionability of things in all these domains.

4. Thus, the person who loves to think is critically minded. The critically minded person is not an undisciplined skeptic, but one who can detect contradictions between principle and practice, and between principles and the values to which they purportedly lead as means. Critical thinking is not the ability to solve problems within the established parameters of social, economic, political, aesthetic, and intellectual-scientific life. Change is impossible if all that people can do is apply the given rules mindlessly. If the problem lies with the established rules (and fundamental problems in any field always concern the established rules), then confining critical thinking to “problem solving” always serves the status quo (i.e., repeats the cause of the problem as the solution).

5. Every class in which the love of thinking is cultivated must be a class in which the interaction between teacher and students lives through the collective effort to open to question a purportedly settled issue, to see how these solutions came to be, what alternatives they excluded, and what alternatives might be better (as well as what constitutes a “better” solution).  Of course, learning to love to think is always developed in relation to a specific subject-matter and definite methodologies. However, these elements of learning are always means to the real end: awakening and cultivating the love of thinking. Learning outcomes confuse the ends (thinking) with the means (content and skills) and set out to measure how well the students are mastering the content and the methods.

6. Learning outcomes are justified as proof of a new concern within the university with the quality of teaching and student learning. In reality, they are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking.  Ironically, the passive, consumeristic attitude that learning outcomes encourage in students works against students becoming motivated to learn even the skills and the information that the learning outcomes prioritize.

7. While they are often sold to faculty as means to improve teaching and better serve the interests of students, what they in fact achieve is a narrowing of the scope and aims of classroom interaction to skilling and information transfer. (See further, Furedi, Frank. (2012). “The Unhappiness Principle,” Times Literary Supplement, November 29th, 2012; Stefan Collini, Who Are the Spongers Now? London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No.2, January 21, 2016). Skills and information acquisition (that which the learning outcomes try to specify and enforce) are not, however, ends, but only means of opening up the discipline (and the world) to question. Nothing will kill student engagement faster than drilling them on information or skills. The really valuable learning happens when the dialectic of question and answer, problem, provisional solution, and then deeper problem excites students sufficiently that they start to want to follow the emergent thread of ideas wherever it leads, because they start to feel themselves actively contributing to that direction.

8. As metrics, they are either redundant (doing nothing but state the obvious, i.e., that a class on Greek philosophy will cover Greek philosophy, and a class that involves essay writing will enable students to learn how to write essays), or useless (if what they aim to measure is something like love of thinking, which is an inner disposition and not subject to quantitative measure). In their belief that only that which measurable is real, defenders of learning outcomes show themselves to be another example of a society-wide cognitive derangement that confuses the value of practices and relationships and activities with their measurable aspects (the “externalist fallacy,” John McMurtry, “What Is Good, What is Bad, The Value of All Values Across Time, Places, and Theories,” Philosophy and World Problems, Volume 1, EOLSS Publishers, 2011, p. 269).

9. That which can be measured is “customer satisfaction.” Even if they are never explicitly justified in these terms, it is clear that when thought within the context of society-wide changes to public institutions and attacks on public sector workers (which include professors in Canada), learning outcomes presuppose and reinforce a consumeristic attitude towards education. They present the purpose of pursuing a course of study as the purchase of a defined set of skills and circumscribed body of information which can then be used as a marketing pitch to future employers. Learning outcomes submerge the love of thinking in bureaucratic objectification of the learner as a customer, a passive recipient of closed and pre-packaged material.

 10. Hence, there is no clear pedagogical value to learning outcomes. If there is no pedagogical value how are we to understand the current fad? As part of the attack on the professional autonomy of professors because it constitutes a barrier to the imposition of market discipline on universities. (See, for example, Jonker, Linda, and Hicks, Martin. (2014). Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty Members: Implications for Productivity and Differentiation. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario;  Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (2012). “Post-secondary Education,” Deem, Rosemary, Hilyard, Sam, Reed, Mike. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Mangerialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Bruneau, William. (2000). “Shall We Perform or Shall We Be Free? The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers To Canada’s Colleges and Universities. James L. Turk, ed., Toronto: Lorimer; Massy, William F, and Zemsky, Robert. “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.” If professors are allowed to define their own terms of work (legitimated by appeal to academic freedom and professional autonomy) they escape the discipline of market forces to which other workers are subjected. This allows them to extract rents in the form of higher wages, and it also constitutes a barrier to “higher productivity” (more graduates produced per unit input of academic labour). Learning outcomes are only one aspect of this broader political-economic assault on academic labour, but the motivation behind them—whatever their institutional supporters might say—cannot be understood outside of this context.