RSP Master Archive -- Responses

Field Name Response to Episode , Textbook in Today’s University
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DATE 2022-04-15 06:00:00
TITLE Textbook in Today’s University
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Academic Study of Religion, Authority, Categorization, Introduction, Religious Studies, Textbook, world religions paradigm
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Responding to our interview with Paul Hedges, Steven Ramey builds on the discussion by arguing for the necessity of unpacking the authority associated with textbooks and shifting pedagogical approaches from presenting information to training students to think critically about the information presented.
SUMMARY:

What is the role of the textbook in today’s university classroom? Chris Cotter’s interview with Paul Hedges implicitly raises this question as they discuss the impetus for creating a new textbook, Hedges’ Understanding Religion; Theories and Methods for Understanding Religiously Diverse Societies (U California Press, 2021). For students, the textbook is often the authority, information to consume and about which they will be assessed. While scholars discuss alternate pedagogical styles, that assumption of textbook authority is common among many of the students in my classroom. For professors, the textbook can be a similar authority, providing the information that they reiterate, clarify, and expand in class sessions. 

At times in religious studies, the textbook, rather than an authority, becomes a foil, a discussion of religion that students and the professor alike challenge in class sessions. This has been my experience with teaching “Religions of the World” in the past. Like Hedges, the available textbooks have not coordinated with my strategy in the classroom. The problems with a textbook as a foil, as some students continue to see it as the authority, has led me to work on a new textbook, co-authored with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Professor at Avila University), which has prompted me to reflect a lot on the role of the textbook. 

As Hedges and Cotter discuss in the podcast, in the contemporary age of smartphones, Google, and digital libraries, where so much information is available online, we should look at textbooks and pedagogy differently. Our primary goal in the classroom study of religion needs to shift from presenting information to training students to think critically about the information that they come across. As Hedges notes, we cannot include everything in one book or one semester (or even one undergraduate career), and students seldom retain all of that information after the test. They will, though, Google questions (in class and out), so developing their skills to think critically about the sources of the information, the perspectives that the information reflects, and the choices made in presenting it is our most important task. 

This approach enables a critique of the World Religions Paradigm within a Religions of the World textbook. A portion of our discussion highlights the selections in creating the textbook as well as the contestation and interests informing the construction of each religion as a separate “tradition”. Hedges’ example of Vishnu, commonly identified as a Hindu deity, serving as a protector for Sri Lankan Buddhists no longer becomes an anomaly, a problem to be explained as “syncretism,” but becomes one of many cracks in the façade of the World Religions Paradigm, which is an effort to construct distinct religions out of the abundance of practices and ideas that exist in the world, not a straightforward description of distinct religions like Hinduism and Buddhism that simply exist out in the world.

With this strategy in mind, the textbook should not present itself as the singular authority but make explicit the choices made in constructing it and the implications of those choices. In our Religions of the World textbook, we present four different representations of each religion and then analyze the choices made in each representation and how each functions to benefit some and, of course, marginalize others. Moreover, the conclusion of each religion’s chapter does not tie the loose ends of the multiple representations together to resolve the conflict with an authoritative conclusion. Instead, the chapters allows those conflicts to remain, undermining any sense that the introductory student now “knows” this religion. The extension of what Hedges discusses, in this vein, is a humility in the textbook, that it is no longer the final authority, and a similar humility for the professor, as J. Z. Smith asserted in “The Necessary Lie: Duplicity in the Disciplines”, to let students in on the choices and simplifications that produce the “mysterious objects” we discuss in our classes. This approach reflects Hedges’ notion of critical, asking who selects what elements and who receives the advantage in any discussion of the topic, connects with our strategies. 

This approach, thus, infuses postcolonial critiques throughout the course, “weaving through everything” as Hedges recommends, rather than condensing Orientalism into a separate week. Recognizing the multiplicity of representations possible and the assumptions and functions informing different representations of religion de-centers dominant constructions of religion and individual religions. When we stop taking certain received ideas as the given, we open up our research and our teaching to the voices that disagree with those received ideas or construct their world differently. These critical strategies are important to be applied broadly, as marginalized voices can also function to marginalize others. Trading the voice of a colonizing scholar for the voice of an insider “leader” (who has their own agency to present things in a manner favorable to their interests) still leaves the majority marginalized. Helping students ask these critical questions about the assertions of leaders, scholars, and others is a step towards resisting the historical and contemporary problems in the construction of knowledge related to religious studies.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Steven Ramey


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/steven-ramey/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/persons_ramey_2022.jpeg


Responses

RESPONSE: How “Woke” Is Your Textbook?: Introducing Religious Studies in the 2020s

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/how-woke-is-your-textbook/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , The Study of Gnosticism Reloaded: From Theological Ostracism to Cultural Appropriation
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/the-study-of-gnosticism-reloaded-from-theological-ostracism-to-cultural-appropriation/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/featured_response_kwiatkowski_s11.jpeg
DATE 2022-02-25 06:00:00
TITLE The Study of Gnosticism Reloaded: From Theological Ostracism to Cultural Appropriation
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Boundary Formation, Categorization, Gnosis, Gnosticism, Identity Construction, Late Antiquity, Nag Hammadi
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: In this response to our interview with David G. Robertson, Fryderyk Kwiatkowski builds on and furthers the discussion by exploring alternative approaches to studying gnosticism in conversation with Robertson’s analysis.
SUMMARY:

The history of Gnostic studies tells a fascinating story, in fact, many fascinating stories. They document scholarly efforts to adequately describe a multitude of late antique religious phenomena and show why these ambitions have still not been satisfied; they reflect theological battles over the essence of “true” Christianity and demonstrate how these struggles led to demonization and exclusion; they also record hopes of excavating lost forms of wisdom and how its reinventions were employed to bring a spiritual renewal in modern, disenchanted times.

The interview between Andie Alexander and Dr. David Robertson gives many entry points into those stories. Robertson further examines them in his book Gnosticism and the History of Religions (2021), showing how they have been entangled in scholarly discourse and eventually formed an irresolvable knot. In my contribution to these explorations, I will focus on somewhat less discussed aspects of and alternative approaches to the three main categories which remain in the center of the recorded conversation: Gnosticism, Gnostics, and Gnosis.

Before the nineteenth century, these terms were largely built upon the Church Fathers’ testimonies—opponents of the ancient Gnostics—which provided doctrinal foundations of Christianity, and thus without reference to primary sources. To paraphrase Robertson’s words, the discovery of new texts near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt, from which they acquired their name—the Nag Hammadi codices—in the mid-twentieth century, marks the “year zero” in Gnostic studies. 

The Nag Hammadi codices c.1947 (Claremont Colleges Digital Library, public domain)

The research that followed the translation and publication of the writings into English in 1978 revealed that the earlier knowledge of Gnosticism—vaguely understood as a collection of various religious and philosophical currents flowering in late antiquity—had manufactured a battery of loose clichés—parasitism, elitism, or hatred of the world—which obscured the contents of the rediscovered books (Williams 1996). Moreover, it appeared that the modern scholarship on Gnosticism also reproduced the ancient theological discourse of haeresis (Gr. “heresy” but also “school of thought”)—a label used by early Christian writers in a pejorative sense to assert “false” religious teachings through hostile definition—that contributed to the identity formation of normative Christianity (King 2003). In other words, instead of functioning as a historical description, “Gnosticism” turned out to be a polemical fiction which reinscribed the ancient and modern politics of “othering.”

Robertson rightly notes that, in effect, many scholars abandoned the term due to its explanatory uselessness and ideological burden. But it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the exponent sources have no common denominator. Remarkably, ever since Williams proposed an argument for dismantling “Gnosticism,” there is an agreement among specialists that a specific group of ancient testimonies and texts, primarily unearthed near Nag Hammadi, display a literary coherence with a shared core of mythic and occasionally ritual language (see Williams 1996; King 2003; Markschies 2003; Marjanen 2008; Brakke 2010). This collection has been treated as an interesting object of study in its own right and scholars have proposed various approaches to describe its distinct characteristics, whether by trying to rehabilitate the term “Gnosticism” (DeConick 2016; Cahana-Blum 2018; Burns 2016; 2020) or by inventing new categories, for example “Biblical demiurgy” (Williams 1996; 2005). These reconstructive attempts clearly show that a second-order term, that would not replicate the problems of the pre-Nag Hammadi scholarship and successfully evade confusions with first-order categories, is needed. 

Another interesting issue raised in the podcast concerns the identity of individuals known in late antiquity as Gnostics. Robertson points out that there is no direct evidence of whether they called themselves as such. This designation term was doubtlessly attributed to them by others—heresiographers, such as Irenaeus of Lyons, or Neoplatonists, notably Porphyry of Tyre. However, we cannot discard the possibility that people who wrote and read ancient Gnostic texts indeed styled themselves “Gnostics” and developed a unique school of thought. This is because the rediscovered texts focus on cosmogonic, anthropological, metaphysical, or ethical matters, conveyed through the language of myth. Bentley Layton (1995) argued that in such compositions there is simply no room for leaving explicit self-identity markers (something like: “this text was written by a devoted Gnostic”). Several scholars followed Layton, restricting the term “Gnosticism,” or the characterization “Gnostic school of thought,” to a single social group which reportedly produced some of the texts found near Nag Hammadi. Though others remain unconvinced, this approach finds adherents in Gnostic studies and continues to be refined (Brakke 2010; Burns 2016, 2020).

I agree with Robertson’s point that one of the reasons why Gnosticism has been attractive to so many people, especially over the last two centuries, is due to the notion of Gnosis. This Greek term, most often translated as “knowledge” or “insight,” in late antiquity generally referred to the salvific knowledge of humanity’s divine origins. With the victory of Catholicism, Gnosis was largely forgotten in the Middle Ages, but in modern times resurfaced again in the context of theological battles over the “true” Christianity. By the end of the nineteenth century, the meaning of the term extended beyond the Platonic milieu of late antiquity. It was connected with the discourse on mysticism, which came to understand mystical experience in terms of the direct encounter of the divine wherein the split between subject and object or time and space dissolve (cf. James 1902), as well as esotericism, a broad range of currents proposing various models of a “higher” or “ultimate” knowledge, such as magic, astrology, or occultism, excluded by post-Enlightenment paradigm as non-scientific (Hanegraaff 2012).

It is precisely at this juncture that Gnosis starts spreading its strange charm beyond the narrow circles of specialists. In contrast to atomizing, homogenizing, and, most of all, disenchanting post-Cartesian rationality, Gnosis, which entangled both insiders’ speculations and academic constructions, conceived of an inner experience as a pathway to the authentic side of human nature and promised unmediated access to objective reality by means of that experience. In effect, Gnosis has offered a powerful alternative to the positivistic model of knowledge, providing resources for spiritual seekers, religiously-oriented scholars and cultural critics alike, especially after the Second World War, to create new normative frameworks of meaning. For example, it empowered individuals to rewrite their religious identities (e.g., Harold Bloom), inspired popular culture authors to implement Gnostic elements in their creative work (e.g., Philip K. Dick), or prompted conservative thinkers to condemn dangerous—in their estimation—contemporary phenomena, such as secularization, Marxism, or Nazism (e.g., Eric Voegelin).

Responding to the speakers’ closing remarks, I agree that in the current post-deconstructive scholarly setting it would be desirable to build a metalanguage enabling people from disparate fields to engage in a fruitful discussion about Gnosticism, Gnostics, and Gnosis. Reception theories could offer useful tools to set up such a platform. They remind us that people make sense of the world through the lens of their experiences, knowledge, and culture. They also take into account our situatedness in a specific moment in history and embeddedness in a particular domain of discourse. Because reception-oriented frameworks do not need to impose value judgements upon one’s apprehension and usage of ideas, it could then help create an inclusive space to facilitate a conversation between, say, Nag Hammadi experts, practitioners of revived Gnostic religions, and cultural commentators, while remaining sensitive and respectful to their divergent interests and goals.

References and recommended readings
  • Adamson, Grant. 2016. “Gnosticism Disputed: Major Debates in the Field.” In Religion: Secret Religion, edited by April D. DeConick, 39–54. Macmillan Reference USA.
  • Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Burns, Dylan M. 2016. “Providence, Creation, and Gnosticism According to the Gnostics.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 24 (1): 55–79.
  • ———. 2020. Did God Care? Providence, Dualism, and Will in Later Greek and Early Christian Philosophy. Leiden; Boston: Brill.
  • Cahana-Blum, Jonathan. 2018. Wrestling with Archons: Gnosticism as a Critical Theory of Culture. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  • DeConick, April D. 2016. The Gnostic New Age. How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Dillon, Matthew J. 2017. “The Heretical Revival: The Nag Hammadi Library in American Religion and Culture.” PhD diss., Houston: Rice University. https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/96155.
  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • King, Karen L. 2003. What Is Gnosticism? Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Layton, Bentley. 1995. “Prolegomena to the Study of Ancient Gnosticism.” In The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks, edited by L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough, 334–50. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • Marjanen, Antti. 2008. “Gnosticism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter, 203–20. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Markschies, Christoph. 2003. Gnosis: An Introduction. New York: T and T Clark.
  • Robertson, David G. 2021. Gnosticism and the History of Religions. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Styfhals, Willem. 2019. No Spiritual Investment in the World: Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Trompf, Garry W., Gunner B. Mikkelsen, and Jay Johnston, eds. 2019. The Gnostic World. London: Routledge.
  • Williams, Michael A. 1996. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • ———. 2005. “Was There a Gnostic Religion? Strategies for a Clearer Analysis.” In Was There a Gnostic Religion?, edited by Antti Marjanen, 55–79. Helsinki; Göttingen: Finnish Exegetical Society; Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

Response Featured Image Information: Yaldabaoth, a lion-faced serpent creator-god portrayed in the ancient Gnostic writings (art by Hanna-Cepeda, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Fryderyk Kwiatkowski


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/fryderyk-kwiatkowski/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/persons_kwiatkowski_2022.png


Responses

RESPONSE: The Strange Charm of Gnosticism

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-strange-charm-of-gnosticism/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Does Critical Islam Make the Familiar Strange?
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PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/does-critical-islam-make-the-familiar-strange/”
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DATE 2022-02-18 06:00:00
TITLE Does Critical Islam Make the Familiar Strange?
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Critical Humanism, Critical Islam, Discourse, Identity, Islam, Secularism
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: In this response to our episode with Khurram Hussain, Matt Sheedy situates Hussain’s work and outlines the usefulness of Hussain’s ‘critical humanist approach’. Sheedy then furthers the conversation by posing some questions about the implications of this approach and how it might translate to other disciplines.
SUMMARY:

First thing’s first, cards on the table. I’m a big fan of Khurram Hussain’s book The Muslim Speaks (2020). When I first came across it, I was struck by how Hussain was able to articulate certain problems that I had been grappling with for some time, but without a clear study that I could build around. Well, that’s not entirely true. The debates that Aaron Hughes has generated for well over a decade now parallel Hussain’s concept “Critical Islam” in a variety of ways. I even had the pleasure of editing a book based on some of these conversations, Identity, Politics, and the Study of Islam (2018). Shameless plugs aside, I situate what Hussain takes up in his book in the tradition of Saba Mahmood, especially her commentary on the Danish Cartoon’s affair, and, more broadly, as grounded in questions of translation. To put it differently, Hussain is interested in how we might interrogate difference—across religions, cultures, and political systems—without assimilating the particular histories and contexts of Muslim cultures and Islamic thought into a Euro-American and Christian-secular framework. This parallels the kind of work that Talal Asad has been doing for decades now, especially in his recent work Secular Translations (2018), along with Andrew March in his 2009 book Islam and Liberal Citizenship, which places Islamic and Western political theologies in conversation with one another. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kristian Petersen’s two recent edited volumes (here and here) on depictions of Islam in global cinema, which locates “Critical Islam” in the more accessible realm of popular culture through the medium of film.

In the vein of these and other texts (Anne Norton’s On the Muslim Question [2013] also comes to mind), Hussain demonstrates how we have systematically ignored the ways in which “Critical Islam” has been part of a long-standing conversation on what it means to be modern, and offers one of the clearest explanations of why “Islam talk” in the West leads us in circles—by setting up false and facile binaries, like good vs. bad Muslims, and by erasing the fact that, as he writes in his book, “The archive of modern Islam is literally teeming with critique” (19).

Turning to the podcast, “Critical Humanist Study of Islam,” there is not much that I found myself in disagreement with, though there are a series of critical questions that I want to provoke to push the conversation further. But first, a bit of a recap is in order to set the table.

In his discussion with host Andie Alexander, Hussain starts by defining his approach by what it is not. It is not an apologia that treats Islamic sources as “true,” nor is it the kind of critique found in much of the work on Orientalism that foregrounds sympathy for Muslims without being critical of Islam. Hussain also locates himself outside of popular scholarship dealing with Islamophobia, along with its binary twin, Islamophilia. Instead, he defines himself within the critical humanist camp following the likes of Hannah Arendt (in his book he also points to [Frantz] Fanon and [Hans-Georg] Gadamer), which rejects the politics of friends and enemies (or good Muslims and bad Muslims) as a dehumanizing project that works to stamp out differences that are grounded in cultural experience and forms of knowledge. Instead, Hussain urges his readers to think of certain strands of Islamic philosophy as modes of critique, where, for example, we can read Muhammad Iqbal the same way we read [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel. The kind of thinking that places these philosophers into incommensurable categories, where one is provincial and the other universal, has deprived us of the grammar to deal with contemporary problems.

I found Hussain’s break-down of the three main discursive traps that dominate Western discourses on Islam particularly useful—what he calls Freedom Talk, Reason Talk, and Culture Talk. For example, in his description of Reason Talk, he describes the pervasive tendency to associate reason with a Euro-Western understanding of rationality, which not only denies that there are multiple types of rationality, but also places Muslims in an impossible bind. Either follow a proscribed path of Reformation, Enlightenment, and secularism, which requires various modes of “religion” be tamed, or remain outside the bounds of modern personhood. This trap sets an impossible standard, and one, moreover, that is constantly changing, leaving Muslims always on their heels. Rejecting these standards, Hussain envisions “Critical Islam” as a way to re-politicize Muslim voices, where different modes of truth and experience are hashed-out intersubjectively with non-Muslims in an ongoing conversation about the good life in the public sphere. In this way, Muslims are imagined as neither friend nor foe, but as critics in their own right to be taken seriously.

In the spirit of the open agora of the public sphere, I want to pose a series of questions to Hussain and others that I hope might spur further engagement.

I am curious to hear what Hussain thinks about the implications of politicizing Muslim voices qua Muslim. That is, how can we think about Muslim cultures, along with Islamic philosophy and theology, as both “religious” and at the same time not reducible to it? Is there a risk of over-determining Muslimness as essential to identity in this type of engagement, to the exclusion or minimization of political, “secular,” and cultural identities? Or is this perhaps part of the bind—that these things are tangled up to together and ought to be thought of as such? Is “Critical Islam” primarily a theological inheritance (i.e., a way of engaging with scriptural and ethical commentary grounded in the Islamic tradition writ large) or does it also include the entanglements of Muslim cultures with forms of secularization? Here I am thinking of Walter Benjamin’s Hegelian notion of translation as transformation into “secular” language (Aufhebung), where explicit references to God or scriptural authority become diffused within society in ways that no longer point to religion per se, but nonetheless retain elements of these traditions. In other words, does something have to be explicitly “Muslim” to be considered “Critical Islam”?

I also wonder how the philosophical ideas that Hussain foregrounds might be translated into other domains that, for better or worse, are weary of explicitly humanist language, and may even be turned off by it because of the roll that normative thinking has played in the field? What I read in Hussain’s book and interview is an approach that has the potential to bridge diverging camps in the study of religion (let’s broadly call them normative vs. critically leaning) through a set of methods and theories that aim to avoid the type of binary thinking (good/bad Muslims) that assimilates Islamic thought into familiar modes of Western reason (through Reason Talk, Freedom Talk, and Culture Talk). Lastly, I wonder how Hussain might position his approach in relation to Jonathan Z. Smith’s dictum that scholars ought to work toward making the familiar strange by comparing normative models of religion with examples that push these boundaries, and allowing them to complicate one another? On my reading, there is a lot of Smith in “Critical Islam,” which speaks to the interests of many RSP guests and listeners.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Matt Sheedy


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/matt-sheedy/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/persons_sheedy_2021.jpeg


Responses

RESPONSE: The Critical Humanist Study of Islam

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-critical-humanist-study-of-islam/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Shamanism, Between Tradition and Modernity
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/shamanism-between-tradition-and-modernity/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/response_featured_marrone-kapcar_s11.jpg
DATE 2022-02-04 06:00:00
TITLE Shamanism, Between Tradition and Modernity
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Ayahuasca, decolonization, Psychedelics, shamanism, Spirituality
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Tancredi Marrone and Andrej Kapcar, in their response to our interview with Bernd Brabec de Mori and Olivia Marcus, unpack common assumptions about ayahuasca and shamanism and outline the benefits of decolonizing current approaches and understandings.
SUMMARY:

The situation regarding the culture surrounding ayahuasca is diverse and complex. It holds a grip on our imagination, possibly fueled by a pop culture which based much of its knowledge on authors such as Mircea Eliade and the psychedelic subculture that is now becoming increasingly mainstream. The psychedelic subculture fueled among others by Harvard psychiatrist Timothy Leary conducted a flamboyant revolution against a prevalent but by now subsided establishment, creating on the one side a propagation of a new venue for promising research and on the other a breach in trust of a delicate and controversial interdisciplinary field. Author Aldous Huxley, famous for having written the Doors of Perception (1954), had in the previous decade spearheaded a movement for the unexpected potential uses of substances such as mescaline, praising the effects of the plants and its mystical inducing effects. Although now ayahuasca is our new collective entheogen—or perhaps wonder-drug—almost a drinkable philosopher stone or golden elixir, a narrative supported with multiple cultures albeit with their unique symbology, we must not forget that psilocybin mushrooms underwent a similar treatment in during the 1960s and 70s. Carlos Castaneda’s popularization with his creative albeit questionable research contributed much to what is currently discussed regarding the colonization of other religious and spiritual cultures. Mexican psilocybin became the object of desire of hordes of hippies crossing the border in pursuit of transcendental experiences, which began to threaten the native species of psilocybin. However, it is worth noting that this phenomenon is not exclusive to psilocybin and has historical precedent with other plant species. For example, tobacco is, in fact, an entheogenic substance among others used in the Amazon, specifically in Brasil. Shamans would smoke 70cm long cigarettes over the course of days to encounter the spirits. Tobacco would also be transformed into a drink or used through the rectum as a tampon taking advantage of the absorbing mucous tissue. The first Spanish colonizers exported the leaf to Europe which quickly caught on also in the Middle East and Central Asia gaining a reputation, culture and repression like that of opium and, for a period, marijuana. The commercialization and globalization of the market of this once upon a time entheogen is possibly responsible for its domestication and phenomenological disenchantment. The culture surrounding the use of ayahuasca thus presents something that is not necessarily new compared to the past especially regarding the exporting and globalization of a local substance. The attitude towards it is perhaps the most striking difference. Ayahuasca, however, is not being conceptualized negatively; on the contrary, it is a psychedelic substance that, although presenting emotionally overwhelming properties, is nonetheless sought out, often as a last resort for issues that range from mental disorders to addiction and existential problems. Personal salvation given by the adequate use of this substance becomes close at hand. This phenomenon is moreover supported by celebrities who, on various occasions, admit to the use of psychedelic entheogens as a solution to their inner dilemmas. It is exactly problem solving that is scattered across the land of its native origin and the industrial Western nations which presents such an appeal, with ‘healing’ being the general term or concept which takes precedent when it comes to motivation.  

The adoption of the rituals and in particular, the reinterpretation of them, by some North Americans and Europeans influences their interaction with ayahuasca in two distinct manners: an industry based on tourism and workshops on one hand, and an interest by part of the medial psychiatric establishment on the other. When it comes to the decolonization of ayahuasca and the surrounding shamanic culture I would bring to attention some features about what a shaman is. The idea of shaman which is in contact with nature through proficiency in techniques of ecstasy is perhaps the most common. The shaman is equated in this case to a spiritual teacher not unlike Tantric gurus who supposedly dedicate their life to the spirit with an attitude of selflessness. Under the strong influence of popular media and literature, the western audience has developed its own version of what is to be imagined under the persona of the shaman. Ideally such as spiritual figure is not equated in our Western imagination with profit, an image that is desirable to keep in place to support the idea of the sacred and the mystical which is lacking from a disenchanted culture. This is however a misguided idea; shamans are effectively interested in profit and that the conception of what is classified as spirituality is radically different from that of Capitalist industrialized Western countries. Combining not just the aesthetic appeal built by the psychedelic culture, but also finding bits and pieces of information in several neopagan movements, the hippie movement, ecological movements and several other, mostly counter cultural groups, the shaman has become strongly romanticized. Often imagined as the wise, spiritual leader of a group whose values are contradictory to the neoliberal, commodity obsessed modern society, the shaman should be righteous, altruistic, detached from the craving for goods and strongly intertwined with nature. In addition to all of that, he is seen as a “keeper of secrets”, someone who is able to teach the spoiled, spiritually polluted westerners the ways of the “true existence”. One doesn’t need to dig too deeply to immediately see the archetype of the “noble savage”, which can be traced back at least to the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (despite him never using the explicit phrase noble savage—bon sauvage, in his work). This archetype embodies the concept of the outsider, the wild human who has not yet been corrupted by civilization, and as such represents the innate goodness of the society. Many of the stories I’ve heard from travelers seeking the “Ayahuascan experience” were permutations on this idea of “return to the innate goodness”, be it trying to find themselves to escape the “toxicity of civilization”, gain “spiritual purity”, or “learn to understand things better”, or trying to gain healing abilities and the spiritual powers attributed to the shaman. The shared idea was the “appeal of the strength” that the shaman should possess.  

On the contrary, the modern as well as historical research on contemporary shamanic societies, or surviving societies of that time, often paints a different picture. Going through the now iconic anthropological works on traditional shamanism by Gavril Xenofontov, or Maria Czaplicka, as well as the well-received publication on Korean Shamanism in modern society by Chongho Kim, deviate from the image of the altruistic shaman and describe the image of shamanism as a profession, a way of earning money and sustaining themselves. Maybe to the surprise of the western idealistic view, shamans had also a life outside of their profession. They were documented as enjoying alcohol or gambling. Their communication with the spirit world was purely noble and respectable, but often vulgar, aggressive, or downright violent. And in no sense of the word could they be described as humble—money, or personal gain was often an intensive motivation behind their profession. The narrative from the Korean Shamanism illustrates how the shaman intentionally buys the cheapest quality of ritual goods, as they are going to be destroyed anyway, or refuses in the state of possession to continue with the ritual if they are not rewarded with increasing amounts of money. Probably of a similar shock would be the interactions between the community and the shaman, where it’s often far from respect and wise leadership, but rather being perceived as a necessary evil. With deep roots in the native culture, shamanism couldn’t be rooted out despite the rapid advancement in medical technology but remained firm in cities and in the countryside alike. Nobody from the respondents was proud to use the services of the shaman, but rather was it a source of shame.  

The usefulness of decolonization should, however, not flow excessively into ideologies as its excess can lead on the other hand to an excessive protection and limitation in usage. This can also inflict mistaken ideas which lead to cases of limiting what is the natural transformation of a religious tradition in contact with globalization, an inevitable rite of passage which is evidenced in the shaman’s adoption of modern and contemporary symbolism which defy classical or traditional imagery. A general lesson in projection of expectations. The purpose in my perspective is to realize that shamanism and shamans are way closer to our mode of thinking than we previously expected. They are not necessarily detached from material interests even if these are focused on different objects than that of western industrialized culture. Now where does this leave us in the question of decolonization? I would say somewhere in between. As Bernd Brabec de Mori and Olivia Marcus mentioned, the process of decolonization shouldn’t be limited to returning the land of the former colonies, but rather also to the respect of the native traditions and their place within the culture. On the other hand, as we could see from the examples, shamanism is often in the native communities not a lifestyle (how the westerners would like to perceive it and practice it), but rather a profession, with its ups and downs. As Marcus was describing her experience of visiting Peru and being immediately associated with the Ayahuasca-tourism of the Westerners, similar experiences I’ve heard also from several of my respondents. Shamanism is a profession and professions adapt to the environment. Where is demand, they will offer their services. If the demand is for “shamanic show of spiritual ascension” for the Western audience, I would assume they adapt their practices, if it’s properly compensated. If the demand for a more traditional shamanic ritual is needed, for a member of the community, it is also not out of the question. Supply and demand are constantly mutually influencing each other, and I think that this is also the case of shamanic practices. Shamans are not transcendental beings detached from this reality, who should be venerated, nor the backwards savages who should be looked down upon. Can we talk about exploitation, or appropriation? Certainly, but at the same time, exploitation and appropriation could be seen also as mutual. The power relationships based on the wealth of the participants might differ but are still all relevant factors.

References

  • Czaplicka, Marie A. 2014. Siberian Shamanism. New York: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform. 
  • Friedrich A, Buddruss G. 1955. Schamanengeschichten aus Sibirien. München-Planegg: Otto Wilhelm Barth-Verlag. 
  • Harner, Michael J. 1990. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Harper & Row. 
  • Huxley, Aldous, e Aldous Huxley. The Doors of Perception ; and, Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. 
  • Kim, Chongho. 2018. Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox. London: Taylor and Francis. 
  • Ksenofontov, Gavril. 1929. Shamanizm i khristianstvo. Irkutsk: tip. Vlast’ truda 
  • Ksenofontov, Gavril. 1955. Schamanengeschichten aus Sibirien, edited and translated by A. Friedrich and 
  • Narby, Jeremy. Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. Reprint edition. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999. 
  • «pagani-altrove.pdf». Consultato 3 febbraio 2022. https://www.samorini.it/doc1/alt_aut/lr/pagani-altrove.pdf
  • Partridge, Christopher H. High Culture: Drugs, Mysticism, and the Pursuit of Transcendence in the Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. Reprint edizione. New York: Crown, 2003.  

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Tancredi Marrone


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/tancredi-marrone/"


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CONTRIBUTOR: Andrej Kapcar


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Responses

RESPONSE: Questioning the Silver Bullet: Critical Approaches for the Study of Ayahuasca

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/questioning-the-silver-bullet-critical-approaches-for-the-study-of-ayahuasca/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , How Do Words Work?
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/how-do-words-work/”
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DATE 2021-12-17 06:00:00
TITLE How Do Words Work?
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: deconstruction, discourse analysis, Knowledge, Materiality, Power, public sphere, Racism
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Following the social media discussions started by our interview with Craig Martin and response from Kevin Schilbrack, Donovan O. Schaefer furthers the conversation by asking us to explore the complexity and materiality of discourse analysis.
SUMMARY:

My thanks to Craig Martin and to Savannah H. Finver for creating this conversation and for inviting me to be a part of it. Craig and I were in grad school at Syracuse University’s Religion department together, and I’m forever grateful to Craig, who joined the department a few years before me, for being one of the first people to welcome me to my home of 9 years. Our conversations started on my first day of my MA program in 2003 and have continued ever since. I’m also excited to be indirectly in dialogue with Kevin Schilbrack, who is making some of the most important contributions around these questions in our field today.

Martin’s interview (and book, though I’m just talking about the interview here) centers the role of discourse in producing power-knowledge. It zeroes in on how formations of power are advanced and consolidated by words. Martin notes that his book was almost titled How Words Work. There’s an echo here—intentional, I assume—of J. L. Austin’s mid-twentieth-century volume How to Do Things with Words, a text that was studied by several of Martin’s heroes, including Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler. 

What I’ve always found interesting about Austin is the extent to which his book has the form of a sort of promissory note. He starts by suggesting we need to abandon the idea that there are “words that say” (constatives) and “words that do” (performatives). “To say something is to do something,” he tells us, and proceeds to elaborate a taxonomy of the different ways in which words act in the world. (Austin: 1962, 120) But the question he leaves unanswered is the question of how some words succeed and some words fail in their ambitions. Why are some speech-acts successful, or believable, or compelling for some listeners at some times and places, but fallible or inert or laughable for others? He calls the currency of their success “illocutionary force,” but admits in the final lecture that he has failed to analyze what this actually means. (Austin: 1962, 148) (He never has a chance to return to the theme, dying just a few years after the lectures were delivered.)

This unanswered question about what makes words work has, in my view, haunted many of the projects that share a lineage with Austin. Some of these projects fall prey to what I have called the “linguistic fallacy”—a set of background coordinates and assumptions, extremely powerful in the humanities, all pointing to the conclusion that what makes us what we are is fundamentally a contraption of words, symbols, and discourses. This fallacy is consolidated with the linguistic turn of the 20th century, but has its roots in philosophical antecedents like German Idealism. It takes as its starting point the essentially intellectual nature of human beings, leading to our total determination by the field of ideas and information enfolding us. What gets lost in this picture are the many ways that our subjectivity is fashioned in ways that exceed the linguistic or intellectual. 

My concern with discourse analysis is that it often ends up reinscribing the errors of this paradigm—a paradigm that is substantiated by our prevalent liberal common sense. In this paradigm, the only effort to reckon with the question of “what makes words work”—Austin’s illocutionary force, the electricity of words—is to point to other words. The plane of words and ideas is taken to be self-sufficient as a field of explanation for why words are persuasive for specific bodies at specific moments in history. We are compelled by words now because we were already compelled by other words, and other words before that, and so on all the way back to birth, a long, interconnected arc of ruling discourses. My counterproposal is that words work not just through their linkages to other words, but by plugging into power grids of social, aesthetic, and material forces. (Here, my concerns are exactly in line with Schilbrack’s: like him, I want to know how discourse analysis can grasp the power of the material, the bodily, or the affective to persuade and compel.) 

By way of example, I’d zoom in on Martin’s own illustration—the case of PragerU. Martin talks about the discursive content of PragerU videos, which often runs up twisted statistics about Black families or crime rates. Martin’s analysis is entirely focused on the transcript of the videos—the stream of words that run through them. But what’s missing here is an analysis of what makes the words actually work—why it is that some viewers find them compelling and others appalling. Not only that, there’s no way in this framework to diagnose the increasingly sophisticated techniques the American right is using to hack identity politics by, for instance, moving people of color in their ranks to the visual foreground. A quick glance at the PragerU YouTube channel prominently features presenters like Amala Ekpunobi, Candace Owens, and Carol Swain—Black women who are happy to channel right-wing talking points, often about problems within the Black community. (It’s the digital equivalent of moving a row of people of color right behind the speaker at a political rally.)

My argument is that there’s much more going on here than just inciting hostility to Black folks with a relentless drumbeat of slanted ideas. That seems like a misunderstanding of what makes these discourses work. What we need to examine is how right-wing media are producing immunity to the accusation of racism itself by changing who is speaking. And that part isn’t said. But it has far more influence, I would argue, on the efficacy of the discourses that are being transmitted than the propositional content of the words themselves. Moreover, it is itself something that exceeds those discursive coordinates—it’s not just about the consolidation of authority of the words being said, but about a more fundamental shift in the gradations of confidence within which some bodies occupy the public sphere. This is where discourse analysis seems to collapse: it studies the transcript of power, missing all of the nonlinguistic channels by which illocutionary force actually gets its hooks into us.

Martin’s interview, however, probes a much more interesting tension within this fallacy—without, I suggest, fully escaping it. This tension is created by a brazenly original move that Martin makes: to wrap together discourse analysis with contemporary social science. A lineage that focuses on words and ideas is hybridized with an approach that considers subjectivity-shaping social forces not captured by language. I’m particularly intrigued by Martin’s powerful new concepts recrement and credorationalism, both of which speak to the way the propositional content of language and the machinery of power are sometimes related in oblique fashion—or not at all. In naming the words we use that are fit for social purposes rather than semantic effect, recrement moves us beyond the presupposition that words make worlds—at least by direct meaning. The concept of credorationalism, for its part, is a way of naming the assumption that a speaking, believing subject should be central to analysis; Martin instead inclines us to assess how statements function as social effects that are not dependent on their propositional content. If this is discourse analysis, it’s arriving at a level of sophistication that I think moves beyond the linguistic fallacy vision of subjects as made by intellect alone. 

I’ve been learning from Craig for almost 20 years, since my very first day as a graduate student. I look forward to the conversations that will follow from our exchange here, and many more to come.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Donovan Schaefer


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/donovan-schaefer/"


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Responses

RESPONSE: Discourse and the Material World

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/discourse-and-the-material-world/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

RESPONSE: Discourse Analysis & Ideology Critique in the Study of Religion

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/discourse-analysis-and-ideology-critique-in-the-study-of-religion/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Can Deconstructing ‘Religion’ Be More than Critique?
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/can-deconstructing-religion-be-more-than-critique/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/response_featured_Gaitanidis.jpg
DATE 2021-12-10 06:00:00
TITLE Can Deconstructing ‘Religion’ Be More than Critique?
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Academic Study of Religion, Category of Religion, Critical Study of Religion, deconstruction, Japan, religion and law
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Responding to our interview with Mitsutoshi Horii, Ioannis Gaitanidis highlights Horii’s analysis of the public benefit-aspect of religion in Japan and expands the conversation by asking how scholars can build on and push further our deconstructive analyses for the critical study of religion.
SUMMARY:

I empathise a lot with Mitsutoshi Horii’s explanations on what brought him to write his monograph. Having just completed a book manuscript that differs dramatically from the argument I developed in my PhD thesis eleven years ago, like Dr. Horii, I needed that decade to take a step back and look at my material from a different angle. In fact, since 2012, a series of fascinating studies have examined the constantly contested and ever-incomplete process of constructing the category of ‘religion’ in Japan and its consequences for ‘religious’ organisations, the Japanese state, the state’s foreign relations, and the public’s perceptions of the meaning of ‘religious’ (Hoshino 2012, Josephson 2012, Isomae 2014, Maxey 2014, Thomas 2019). Today, no book on religion relying wholly or partially on Japanese case studies can ignore these arguments, and Dr. Horii’s analysis of the post-WWII situation has been, I think, a welcome addition to that literature.

In this interview, Andie Alexander asked Dr. Horii to talk more about the conundrums surrounding the public benefit-aspect of religion, which I think is one of the most important analyses in his book. The way that Dr. Horii goes on to explain the practical effects of there not being a ‘clear definition between what is commercial or what is religious’ — which means that people make up their own distinctions in reaction to legal, political, moral and other (not necessarily ‘religious’) imperatives — reflects recent debates on the corporate form, and the need to go beyond simplistic -ization-type of arguments (e.g. ‘commercialisation of religion’). In my work on ‘spiritual’ practices, often defined in comparison to ‘religion’, the commercial aspect has been seen as the ‘corruption’ of spirituality. Scholars, lawyers, popular critics, but also former consumers of the so-called spiritual business in Japan, have attacked the providers of spiritual services for a variety of reasons that tend to mirror their individual concerns of what ‘authentic spirituality’ ought to be about and what its relationship to capitalism ought to look like. In my forthcoming book, I show how each of these stakeholders’ criticism is connected not only to idealised forms of religious activity, but also (among others) to academic debates over the historical development of ‘popular religion’, to legal reactions regarding changing patterns of consumer fraud, and to arguments about the perceived quality of ‘professional’ psychological counselling. 

In some ways, therefore, I agree with Dr. Horii that religion is co-constructed by its others. Still, I also think that if we are to advance the field, this means that these ‘others’ deserve as much critical analysis as ‘religion’. In other words, contributing factors to religion-making processes ought to be used as more than just “buffers” on which we bounce our critiques. For example, an analysis of the legal framework that has defined contemporary Japanese religious organisations and has, by extent, influenced the image of the public role that religions are expected to play today would benefit more from also considering the circumstances under which such laws were devised in the first place. This is why Dr. Horii’s critique of ‘religion’ as a legal category goes very well with Jolyon B. Thomas’ examination of how the American Occupation and various Japanese stakeholders came to conceive of religious corporations in the immediate post-WWII period (2019). If legal, medical, economic and other frameworks contribute to what turns religion into something ever-shifting and ‘undefinable’, a critique of the study of religion cannot be complete without a critique of these frameworks too.  

At the same time, if I had a specific question to ask Dr. Horii, this would be about where he thinks the deconstruction of the category of ‘religion’ and related binaries, such as religion/secular, religion/economy, religion/politics and so on, will lead us. I have been reading Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm’s new monograph, and, like the author, I am convinced that ‘all attempts to reaffirm the contours of our discipline by producing alternate theories of “religion” or replacing “religion” with near synonyms are doomed to failure’ (Josephson Storm 2021: 61). Josephson Storm offers a compelling answer to this problem, which I will not spoil here. However, I think that this remains a significant issue for Dr. Horii. What is the ultimate objective of applying a critical approach to the study of the identities of Buddhist priests, for example? Towards the end of the podcast, Andie Alexander asked a question about methodology, about how Dr. Horii’s approach looks like in practice, but I wished Dr. Horii had gone a bit further in his answer. What would be the outcome of a critical examination of the negotiation (in)between religious and other identities of these priests? Dr. Horii mentions that by deconstructing concepts and binaries, ‘we can actually find a better way to dialogue’. What would this way be? I look forward to hearing more about it in Dr. Horii’s upcoming book.  

On a final note, I believe that the deconstruction of ‘religious’ categories and the study of how these categories further shape the use of the adjective ‘religious’ in other instances needs to be more than a critique of previous scholarship and the status quo. Such analyses are, of course, essential for advancing our methodologies and unearthing our politics, but what we do with them after that is equally important. In brief, what are the hopes, fears, aspirations and experiences that are masked by the louder debates over whether these hopes, fears, aspirations and experiences are ‘religious’ or not? That is, I think, one question that makes the critical study of religion a necessary approach. Yet, it requires scholarly engagement with various sources and a tremendous effort to combine and transform those investigations into a coherent story that is as much about ‘religion’ as it is about everything else. If the field of religious studies has always been somewhat transdisciplinary, this is a quality that needs nurturing now more than ever.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Ioannis Gaitanidis


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/ioannis-gaitanidis/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/persons_gaitanidis_2021.jpg


Responses

RESPONSE: Deconstructing 'Religion' in Contemporary Japan

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/deconstructing-religion-in-contemporary-japan/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , New Old Manuscripts
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/new-old-manuscripts/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/response_featured_mock_s11.jpg
DATE 2021-12-03 06:00:00
TITLE New Old Manuscripts
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Classification, Eastern Christianity, Historiography, Manuscripts
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Responding to our interview with István Perczel, Theron Clay Mock, III explores the longstanding tensions and questions between ‘new’ and ‘old’ and how academic methods of engaging those issues can prove useful both in and beyond the academy.
SUMMARY:

Radiohead recently released new old music. It does not vibe with their most recent 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool. In the new-old album there are different electronic bleeps and bloops, a younger perspective, and foretastes of a future. Kid A Mnesia is old, just the right kind of bleeps and bloops for entering a new century, but newly published. It has been an interesting and confusing listening experience for many, or at least me, I imagine. What are we to do with the new and the old in humanistic inquiry and reflection?

Discovered manuscript evidence is one of the novelties of antiquity. It intrigues because it’s newly old: a new batch of puzzle pieces for an already known puzzle. But at the same time it’s oldly new: the overall puzzle may, from time to time, change. What was imagined as a duck may now be a rabbit. In the academic study of religion, scholars have newly returned to old eastern Christianity and old academic narratives. The tension between old and new disrupts acquired habits of thought.

There may be a new social prestige in studying eastern Christianity, or perhaps more precisely Christianity beyond the Mediterranean and Europe from late antiquity, to the bright ages, and to modernity. It is easily seen in a recent issue of the New York Review and has been growing over the last three decades, a blip in the academic study of religion. Peter Brown, expert in late antique Christianity, turns away from the hyper-focus on western, European late antiquity to the east, to Ethiopia. He contextualizes and reviews three books that expand our imagination of Christianity and global interactions as well as revises academic narratives like Edward Gibbon’s erasure of Ethiopian significance. What’s more, it can be seen in forthcoming publications. 

Take on the one hand, for example, Loren Stuckenbruck’s critical edition of 1 Enoch that attends to Ethiopian manuscripts to understand Hellenistic and Roman era Yahwism. Stuckenbruck has collected more and distinct Geʿez manuscript traditions in partnership with universities, priests, and scribes in Ethiopia. His inquiries enrich our understanding of the 2nd century BCE to 1st century CE past that critically lies in the text as well as the text’s own medieval history. Additionally, it possibly corrects strains of the Greek manuscript tradition, which most scholars rely upon. And on the other hand, J. Edward Walter’s Eastern Christianity: A Reader makes texts from Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Coptic, and Ethiopic available in English translations. Both resources will serve academic pursuits, challenge dominant academic narratives, and provide new research opportunities on newly old data. Within such an academic setting this episode of The Religious Studies Project can be placed. 

I aim to briefly highlight a certain tension in the new and old as well as basic and uncircumventable historiography in Sidney Castillo’s conversation with István Perczel. With around 1,200 digitized manuscripts, first discovered in Kerala in 1998 and varying in language and genre, Perczel has challenged local and European legends reproduced in scholarship about the presence of Christians in southwestern India. Perczel distinguishes between legend and history as well as direct and indirect sources. Legend has it that St. Thomas founded these Christian groups, but there is no direct evidence of this. It is a myth that elite literate producers among Christian groups told themselves about themselves. What’s more, they also depict relations with and against Jewish and Muslim groups. Direct sources, documents that are legal (marital relations), economic (spice trade), and political (granted privileges) in Perczel’s hands convey a richer story of community interaction. So too the indirect ones, like myths and legends, in his hands can provide a critical, probable history. This episode does not highlight new methods but an old inescapable one—critical historiography—and new evidence. While I cannot judge the content of Perczel’s claims, in procedure he moves in ways admissible to the academic study of religion. He’s likely, if not certainly, correct. And such procedural moves could be useful beyond the academy.      

Photo of Jason Stanley

It cannot be overlooked where Perczel works. The tension between legend and history, new and old evidence as well as narrative perspectives may indirectly serve political goals. Perczel researches at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, a private university. Victor Orban’s governance deploys fascist ethno-Christian-nationalist myths to rally support and silence criticism. Public Hungarian universities have been defamed as leftist indoctrination institutions or had funds cut and programs terminated. Jason Stanley will publish a Hungarian translation of How Fascism Works, Így működik a fasizmus, in time for the 2022 Hungarian parliamentary elections. We wait to see what difference it may make.

The vital work of academics is not so much in the academics but in the individuals it produces so that it can produce such critical understanding and academics. Perczel’s careful, responsible, and accountable method sits in tension with Orban’s diametrically opposed myth. Or to quote, and end with, Bruce Lincoln’s eleventh thesis on method:

The ideological products and operations of other societies afford invaluable opportunities to the would-be student of ideology. Being initially unfamiliar, they do not need to be denaturalized before they can be examined. Rather, they invite and reward critical study, yielding lessons one can put to good use at home. 

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Theron Clay Mock III


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/theron-clay-mock-iii/"


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Responses

RESPONSE: When Christians Meet Each Other: The Saint Thomas Christians of Southwest India in the Early Modern Period

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/when-christians-meet-each-other/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Discourse and the Material World
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/discourse-and-the-material-world/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/response_schilbrack_featured_s11.png
DATE 2021-11-26 06:00:00
TITLE Discourse and the Material World
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Belief, Discourse, Materiality, Nonreligion, Post-structuralism
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: In his response to our interview with Craig Martin, Kevin Schilbrack critically engages Martin’s discussion with regard to discourse and materiality, notions of belief, and the analytical usefulness of the category ‘religion’—take a look!
SUMMARY:

I am flattered to be invited to respond to this discussion of Craig Martin’s new project. Martin and I share an interest not only in the critical study of religion but also in the philosophical commitments that critical study involves. I am especially appreciative of this opportunity because Martin is here defending a post-structuralist position, and he knows that I don’t share that stance, so he is doing what more scholars should do: exposing his work to critique from alternate views. To initiate a conversation between our positions, I have organized my response in terms of three points at which I think Martin and I disagree:

  1. The relation of discourse and the material world
  2. The nature of belief and its role in explaining behavior
  3. Whether the concept of “religion” is analytically useful 

The relation of discourse and the material world

Martin identifies his approach as post-structuralist, and he is right that we are now working in a period when that approach is under critique from so-called “critical realists” like me. Nevertheless, I support his efforts to spell out the value of post-structuralist insights into the constitutive role of discourse without denying that a non-discursive world exists. I agree with him when he says that a post-structuralist approach need not be non-realist or “Kantian.” Post-structuralism need not deny that there exists a material world outside discourse—as Derrida says, bodies with flesh and blood. I agree with him that ideology critique (or, really, any appeal to evidence) requires a world independent of one’s investigation. 

Let me set aside the question of what post-structuralism “really” means, however, and focus instead on this related question: when we want to understand and explain human behavior, what should we investigate? As a critical realist, my answer is that we want to investigate discourse as a structure in the world that depends on human conceptualizing, but we also want to investigate the impact of the structures in the world that do not depend on human concepts. We might even think of these as two arrows: how do human concepts have their effects (including their effects on material things) and how does the material world have its effects (including its effects on us)? You could call this view of the relation of discourse and the material world “dialectical.” 

When I read this interview, I see attention to how our discourse affects the world, but I don’t see much attention to the effects of the material world on us. Martin says that you can’t have groups of people without discourses that bring those groups into existence. But when an animal (including a human animal) gives birth to and cares for a baby, does that social bond not exist until someone speaks about it? He says that our sympathies and antipathies are “produced” by discourse. But do hormones and neurons not also have a crucial role in producing judgements? Even when the interview shifts to talk about the material world, the focus is on how discourse has a role in how material resources get distributed. This focus on the rhetorical power of language is invaluable, especially for the study of religion. But it still sounds one-sided. 

I see the human beings as animals born into structures that operate whether or not anyone has ever put them into words. Some of the non-discursive structures shaping our lives are biochemical. They are the product not of discourse but of natural selection, and they can be discovered. Some of the non-discursive structures shaping our lives are economic.They are the product of previous human labor and discourse, but they may not have yet been noticed or named yet, so they too can be discovered. We might call this view “social realism.” Martin says that he is offering what he calls “a fuller understanding” of post-structuralism. I hope that his view grows to the point that it connects to this kind of realism.

The nature of belief and its role in explaining behavior

Another question that Martin and I share has to do with whether to explain people’s religious behavior in terms of their beliefs. Do people, for example, go to church because they “believe in Jesus”? In my book, I defined a belief as what a person holds true. This means that a belief is a disposition – a mental state – to act, think, and feel in certain ways. For example, a person who assumes (or holds true or believes) that a chair is strong enough to support them will be disposed to sit on it and to be surprised if it collapses. So, although my view may seem old-fashioned or “Cartesian,” I am someone who absolutely does not want to drop the category of belief from my explanations of people’s behavior. I think that some people do go to church because they believe in Jesus. 

Martin introduces his term “credorationalism” to challenge this habit of explaining what people do by referring to their beliefs. It is worth noticing, however, that here Martin shifts from explaining people’s behavior in terms of their beliefs (the view I want to defend) to explaining it in terms of what people tell you are their beliefs. Of course, Martin is right that what people say is not always true. Religious people, like everyone else, lie, spin, exaggerate, and front. They can even deceive themselves. This is why Martin focuses on bullshitting (“recrement”).  And this approach is a legitimate way to explain behavior that does not assume that what they say publicly is their real motivation. As far as I can tell, however, this critique of religious discourse does not yet touch the question whether behavior is explained by belief. I think that human behavior cannot be explained unless one includes what the person holds true. For this reason, I remain interested in the question of what people believe and how those dispositions are inculcated.

Whether the concept “religion” is analytically useful

In a series of publications in the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion (JAAR) and Religion, I have argued that the concept of religion is analytically useful because it corresponds to a certain kind of social structure but, in this interview, Martin (like some other post-structuralists) argues that the concept is analytically useless. 

This is an important topic. To label one thing as an X and another as a Y is typically in order to justify treating the two things differently. Moreover, using different concepts for them can obscure the fact that both are examples of a larger category.  Distinguishing “men” and “women” can obscure the fact that both can be described with the concept “human being.” Distinguishing “religion” and “politics” can obscure the fact that both can be described with the concept “ideology.” 

Martin is interested in how societies use discourse to justify domination. If two pieces of discourse have this same social function—and religious discourse often does have exactly this function—then it can be a distraction to label them with different concepts. However, it does not follow that the concept of religion is analytically useless or, as Martin says, that there is nothing “remotely of value” in labelling something a religion.  

Let’s say that Professor Plum was murdered with a blunt object; perhaps it was the candlestick or the wrench. The detective who is trying to find out whodunit may not be interested in the fact that a candlestick is used to hold candles at the dinner table and a wrench is used to fix cars in the garage. But obviously these differences can matter in other circumstances. On this analogy, I take Martin’s statements that the concept of “religion” is analytically useless not as telling us something about this concept, but rather as telling us something about his particular interests. The uselessness doesn’t hold for other perspectives in the academic study of religion. For example, Martin says that religious discourse was used to justify racism in the nineteenth century and non-religious discourse is used in the twenty-first. Because both pieces of discourse were used to justify domination, Martin understandably does not want to distinguish them into different categories. However, we can imagine a historian who wants to grasp why that change happened—why, that is, appeals to God’s curse on Ham were more effective two hundred years ago than they are now. Why are religious justifications for racism (or for monarchs, sexism, or homophobia) losing credibility today? Those interested in this historical question may see tremendous analytic value in the concept of “religion.” In fact, I heard a scholar at a Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network conference say that the shift in plausibility structures in modern Europe away from religious justifications is one of the most significant transformations of discourse in human history. 

Thanks for inviting me to join this conversation. It is good to see this growing interest in “philosophy of religious studies.”

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Kevin Schilbrack


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/kevin-schilbrack/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/persons_schilbrack_2021.jpg


Responses

RESPONSE: How Do Words Work?

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/how-do-words-work/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

RESPONSE: Discourse Analysis & Ideology Critique in the Study of Religion

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/discourse-analysis-and-ideology-critique-in-the-study-of-religion/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , The Now of Digital Humanities in Religious Studies
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/the-now-of-digital-humanities-in-religious-studies/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/response_wieringa_featured_s11.jpg
DATE 2021-11-12 06:00:00
TITLE The Now of Digital Humanities in Religious Studies
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Academia, Classification, Digital Humanities, Religious Studies, Research
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Responding to our interview with Chris Cantwell and Kristian Petersen, Jeri E. Wieringa builds on the conversations of research evaluation and sustainability issues in digital humanities projects and unpacks what is at stake in how we define DH work and projects.
SUMMARY:

One of the challenges with working in an interdisciplinary space is communicating to colleagues how your work connects to the existing fields and norms of practice. For those of us working in both religious studies and digital humanities, where the scholarly intersection is relatively new, that challenge can feel particularly acute. To that, both the DeGruyter Introduction to Digital Humanities – Religion series and the volume edited by Cantwell and Petersen are invaluable additions, offering concrete examples of work being done at the intersection of religious studies and the digital humanities.

This podcast provides a welcome introduction to the Digital Humanities and Research Methods in Religious Studies volume and to the ongoing issues involved with working in digital humanities and religious studies. There were three elements of this conversation that stood out to me and which I would like to briefly comment on: the challenge of credit and evaluation of digital work; the problem of sustainability and preservation; and a question of definition. But before beginning, I should note that I was also on the committee drafting the AAR guidelines for digital scholarship with both Cantwell and Petersen, whose work and perspectives I greatly admire and which have been influential on my own. I also have a piece in the forthcoming Digital Humanities and Libraries and Archives in Religious Studies volume of the Introduction to Digital Humanities – Religion series.

Credit and Evaluation of Digital Scholarship

Digital scholarship, which, as Cantwell and Petersen note, is work that spans the traditional categories of “research”, “teaching”, and “service”, has long posed a challenge for processes of academic evaluation. When I started my PhD program in 2011, conversations around guidelines for tenure and promotion in the field of History were in their early stages (later approved in 2015), and many of those working in the digital humanities who were tenured had achieved their tenure based on traditional publication formats. While in the intervening years a number of scholarly organizations have published guidelines, additional venues for peer review and publishing of digital scholarship have been established, and the number of digital projects have increased (as shown in the examples of this book), digital scholarship still sparks a range of structural questions around credit. Similar infrastructure is only just forming within Religious Studies and so it is no surprise that the conversation around what is possible with computational technologies also brings with it, almost from the beginning, questions of how such work would “count” for tenure and promotion. 

Here I think the exemplar approach that Cantwell and Petersen pursue is particularly effective. In the abstract, it is hard to imagine where digital scholarship would fit within the current system of knowledge production. Examples like Mullen’s analysis of digitized American newspapers, Kaplan and Shiff’s creation of augmented and virtual reality environments, and Bellar and Campbells development of a scholarly network for studying digital religion point to the varied ways knowledge production is already taking place on and through digital media. The well-chosen examples of this volume make the argument that digital humanities is not something in the distant future, but is already happening now.

But the question of credit can also be a distraction. This is not to say that how such work is evaluated is unimportant—as someone on the tenure track, I am acutely aware of departmental requirements and the need for being strategic about scholarly output. But the question of how to “count” digital scholarship seems to me to be a symptom of trying to preserve certain assumptions about books and narrative writing that have become assumed. Digital projects provoke questions of credit precisely because they force us to reconsider our assumptions about scholarship and about the ways we use articles and books to create a type of knowledge and a particular ethos around it. 

Here I find it useful to listen to conversations taking place in book history and media studies, in disciplines thinking systematically about technologies of exchange. I am currently reading Living Books: Experiments in Posthumanities by Janneke Adema, which offers a critique of the scholarly monograph and academic publishing through an examination of the performative culture of academic publishing and the formation of beliefs about the book as linear, stable, and individually authored and owned. The problem of credit that is associated with digital humanities is arguably a problem only because it makes us rethink assumptions about authorship and production that have become naturalized through our particular uses of print. Digital humanities projects force us to see the instability and the tenuousness of scholarship generally, and that is uncomfortable. And it is much easier to try to make digital projects “behave” like books than it is to reconsider what we mean by scholarship in the first place.

Issues of preservation and sustainability

Relatedly, humanities scholars rarely think about the preservation or stability of their monographs because the infrastructure we have in place has become naturalized – we assume that between the university press and university libraries, we have the means to publish our work (however scarce those opportunities have become) and that once published, it will be recorded and maintained over time.

For digital projects, that infrastructure is nascent. Institutional repositories are still primarily designed for files that are digital surrogates of print—PDF files of articles or books. We are able to archive web-texts with WebArchive files (.warc), but the technology struggles with javascript elements, which generate much of the content that is served through the Web. Additionally, the rate of abandonment of digital projects is high—in a 2019 article in Digital Scholarship, Luis Meneses and Richard Furuta estimate an average five year “shelf life” for digital humanities projects. What aspects of digital projects can and should be preserved, and for how long, are open questions that require both technical and cultural answers. 

The story of “Digitizing Rochester’s Religions,” as related in the podcast, gives an example of how this lack of infrastructure can play out. Universities often limit their technical resources to current faculty and when the faculty member moves on, those resources are withdrawn. The current leading options for long-term technical support are through collaborations with libraries, presses, or third-party services (either corporate or sponsored by scholarly organizations.) Of these, services such as Humanities Commons that were started at the level of scholarly organizations are particularly interesting, as they provide a way to support scholarship apart from the financial and local concerns of a particular university or scholarly press.

However we come to support digital projects over time, scholars looking to start digital projects do need to think in terms of collaboration from the outset. Digital humanities projects funded by the NEH are required to provide data management plans precisely because unlike the monograph where the process of handing off the finished project is known, digital projects persist when that process is established near the beginning. As Cantwell and Petersen note in their introduction, “collaboration is key,” and DH scholars need to “think iteratively.” To this I would add, for digital projects, developing and publishing take place at the same time and so the collaborators need to include those involved in the distribution and preservation of the work.

We are all digital humanists now

With their goal of bringing more religious studies scholars into conversation with the digital humanities, Cantwell and Petersen in this interview make the observation that as computational technologies have become ubiquitous, in some way we “are all digital humanists now” as all of our work is mediated by technology. Noting that they do not define “digital humanities” within the volume, both Cantwell and Petersen lean toward an expansive implicit definition of engagement with digital technologies, or as Cantwell says toward the end, “using digital tech to advance the humanities or the application of humanistic theory to digital technology.”

Defining “digital humanities” is indeed a cottage industry and I do understand the reluctance to say who is “in” and who is “out.” (It is worth noting that they also do not offer a definition of “religion,” which has similar issues of classification and boundary policing.) I am concerned, however, that the lack of definition or an overly expansive definition along the lines of “working with computers” makes it more challenging rather than less for helping others join the conversation. I worry that it also undercuts the particular work that needs to be done in thinking about how these new computational technologies break down previous assumptions about knowledge. 

We all indeed use software to write (this particular response is being drafted in a Google Doc.) We find sources through digital catalogs and databases. But that in and of itself does not make one a “digital humanist” any more than reading a paper codex makes one a book historian. For another example, I code using Python but I am not a developer because I do not participate in any developer communities. I use similar tools and I learn from the community, but my attention is not there and I am not engaged in their concerns and conversations.

My concern with the expansive definition of working with computers is that it hides an implied definition of “doing hard things with computers,” where “hard things” is both subjective and a shifting target. It seems obvious to me that using Microsoft Office doesn’t make one a digital historian, but does blogging? Did it at one point? One danger I see in this implicit definition is that it makes it incredibly challenging for those looking to join the community, as what is “hard” for one person is routine for someone else, and what was hard in the beginning becomes second nature over time. 

I am a digital humanities scholar, not because I do hard things with computers (though I am always trying to deepen my technical know-how which means my work is almost always challenging to me personally), but because I am listening and talking to people in the DH community, particularly those working in digital history and computational text analysis.

The digital humanities have existed as communities of practice for a long time—there are well-established conferences, journals, networks, and specialities that sustain multiple sets of scholarly practices and methods of knowledge-making. While scholars in religious studies have only recently joined those conversations in earnest, as this volume demonstrates there is a wide range of work being done already. In naming these examples, Cantwell and Petersen have provided a definition of digital humanities in religious studies that includes text and network analysis, image analysis and virtual reconstruction, critical curation, geospatial analysis, public engagement, community building, and digital pedagogy. The flip side of the question of credit is the question of whether something “counts” as digital humanities. The volume provides a partial answer to that question by identifying some of the people and the types of questions one can engage to join the conversation, and in so doing become a “digital humanist.”

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Jeri E. Wieringa


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/jeri-wieringa/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/persons_wieringa_2021.jpg


Responses

RESPONSE: Mapping the Digital Study of Religion

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/mapping-the-digital-study-of-religion/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , The Importance and Challenges of the Digital Humanities
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/the-importance-and-challenges-of-the-digital-humanities/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/featured_response_weiner_s11.jpg
DATE 2021-11-05 06:00:00
TITLE The Importance and Challenges of the Digital Humanities
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Academia, Digital Humanities, Digital Religion, open access, pedagogy
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: In this response, Isaac Weiner builds on the discussions in our recent interview with Chris Cantwell and Kristian Petersen by exploring how scholars can work to make digital humanities projects more accessible, how we can avoid exploiting the labor of early career scholars, and how we can take the affective experience of these projects into consideration.
SUMMARY:

Let me begin by expressing my great appreciation for all that Christopher Cantwell and Kristian Peterson have done to advance the digital study of religion. As their interview with Dan Gorman makes clear, Digital Humanities and Research Methods in Religious Studies offers a compelling “why to” guide for DH novices interested in exploring how digital tools and methods can enhance their scholarship. But this is only one of several ways Cantwell and Peterson have offered invaluable service to our field. Besides the examples set by their own scholarship, including Gathering Places and the Women of Islamic Studies database, they have worked tirelessly to ensure that all digital scholarship in the study of religion be taken more seriously. The standards they helped draft for the American Academy of Religion really are exemplary, and I can say that my own department consulted them regularly as we recently revised our promotion and tenure documents. I have also returned repeatedly to the 2015 state-of-the-field report Cantwell produced with Hussein Rashid for the Social Scientific Research Council and have taught with it in courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I now plan to incorporate this RSP interview into my teaching, as well.

In fact, it was hard to know what to say in response to their interview, for I found myself mostly nodding in agreement as I listened. Cantwell and Peterson, in conversation with Gorman, do a fantastic job explicating the numerous opportunities and challenges confronting any scholar who makes the plunge into digital methods. Everything they say resonated with my own experience at the helm of a large-scale digital humanities research initiative.

Since 2014, I have co-directed the American Religious Sounds Project with Professor Amy DeRogatis of Michigan State University, which asks what religion sounds like in the US and what we can learn by listening for it. Our teams of faculty, staff, and student researchers have produced hundreds of audio field recordings, documenting sounds of American religious life across a wide range of spaces and communities. We have integrated these recordings, along with teaching resources, curated gallery exhibits, and written reflections, onto a custom-built digital platform housed at Ohio State University.1

When DeRogatis and I began work on this project, we were complete novices when it came to digital methods and scholarship. Now, several years later, we have learned so much about the issues Cantwell and Peterson discuss, often through excruciating trial and error. I heartily affirm what they say about the pedagogical value of digital humanities scholarship and the ways it blurs the boundaries among teaching, research, and service. Involving students in a public-facing, community-engaged research project has offered an excellent way of introducing them to basic theoretical questions in the academic study of religion, while also helping them appreciate the intellectual and ethical stakes of our work. I also found myself agreeing with everything Cantwell and Peterson say about collaboration and credit, sustainability and preservation, and funding and institutional context. These are undoubtedly the most pressing issues facing all of us doing work in this area. And yes, yes, a thousand times yes, to DH librarians and archivists as present and future stars of our field. Take note, aspiring PhD students! 

Let me just briefly touch on a few issues that Cantwell and Peterson did not get an opportunity to discuss in their interview that I think warrant further consideration. First is the question of accessibility. For whom is our digital scholarship accessible, and how should accessibility concerns shape our work? This is an issue to which DH scholars are beginning to turn their attention but requires much more sustained engagement. For example, Cantwell and Peterson note the popularity of mapping in scholarship on religion, yet we have found that many existing mapping tools do not meet minimum institutional accessibility standards. They pose a number of challenges for screen readers and other adaptive technologies. Best practices are also still evolving around alt-text descriptions for image and audio, especially when it comes to descriptions of race, gender, and disability. I admit that my own team was not sufficiently attentive to these matters when we began our work seven years ago, and it has taken a lot of time—and resources—to address them later. These issues demand much more sustained attention from scholars of religion. I encourage folks getting started on new projects to begin thinking about these challenges from the outset. It would be great to have a forum within the American Academy of Religion for us to discuss them together.

Second, I want to ask what the crisis of contingent labor means for the possibility of doing digital scholarship. As Cantwell and Peterson discuss, DH projects can require a great deal of time and financial support, though, as they say, that does not have to be the case. When DeRogatis and I began our work, she had tenure, and I was about to receive tenure on the basis of our more traditional print scholarship (books and peer-reviewed articles). We were at ideal times in our careers to experiment with new methods and approaches that might not be taken as seriously by our peers. By virtue of our full-time employment by R1 research universities, we had access to ample internal and external grant funding that would not have been available to us otherwise. And we’ve been able to secure long-term commitments from our institutions regarding the sustainability and preservation of our work. Few of those privileges are available to contingent faculty, or at least certainly not on the same terms. We have tried to use our funding to create opportunities for others but would readily admit it’s not enough. In our eagerness and enthusiasm to advance digital methods in the study of religion, we need to find ways to avoid further deepening the structural inequalities that we all know are features of contemporary academic life.

Finally, I want to conclude with a question that I don’t hear asked very often, which has to do with the affective experience of doing digital scholarship. That is, apart from the questions of why or how to do DH work, I want to talk more about what it feels like to do this work. For myself, I can say it has been exhausting. Rewarding, yes, but exhausting. I know this is true of academic labor in general, but I think it’s worth thinking more about the particular aspects of DH work that make it so. Collaborating with others. Navigating different personalities and interests. Constantly translating our research into terms that others can understand. Constantly learning new things, new tools, new systems only to find out that many of the solutions you’ve stumbled across won’t work for other unforeseen reasons. Making mistake after mistake after mistake. Spending weeks on questions of digital design or font choice or metadata categories or licensing agreements and having to remind yourself that all of that matters and all of it should count as forms of scholarship – even though they often don’t. Never feeling like you’re finished because the work is always iterative and there are always new ways to tinker and tweak and update. Worrying about whether any of the work you’re doing is worth it or will be taken seriously by others. And I say all of this as someone who has tenure at a university and in a department that has been remarkably supportive of my work and has benefitted from extraordinary levels of external grant funding. I know that I‘ve had every imaginable structural advantage to make my work easier. And yet, and still, it is exhausting. That seems worth naming, too.


References

  1. Full disclosure: Christopher Cantwell serves on our ARSP advisory board and has been a valued conversation partner throughout the life of the project. In addition, we were invited to contribute a chapter to Cantwell and Peterson’s volume though had to decline due to other commitments.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Isaac Weiner


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/isaac-weiner/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/persons_weiner_2021.jpg


Responses

RESPONSE: Mapping the Digital Study of Religion

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/mapping-the-digital-study-of-religion/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet