Posts

Modern & Lofton Illumine “Religion”

Modern: “I think . . . one of the underlying directives of Class 200 is to get that kind of conversation going, just that very notion of is there a relationship between description and explanation and what is it . . . The idea, I think underlying Class 200, is this notion that the way in which you write informs your argument, right, and so the very categories and the kinds of criteria you use to find religion, locate religion, describe religion is going to figure in to what kind of case you’re making about religion. And so I think it’s just that kind of move that doesn’t seem too revolutionary at all but seems to me not foregrounded enough in terms of when I look out on the field of Religious Studies on the past fifty years. It’s not like it’s absent, but I would like to promote it.”

Lofton: “How can the study of religion persist in the wake of postcolonial critiques? What is the right to absorb yourself in material?”

That’s how the conversation about the relationship between the description of religion and its explanation starts between professors Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern and University of Chicago graduate student Adam Miller. Frequent collaborators, Lofton and Modern curated frequencies and now edit the University of Chicago Press’ series Class 200. If you missed frequencies, go have a look. If you followed frequencies, the motivations behind and goals before Class 200 come as no surprise.

Wherever they go, Lofton and Modern host uncommonly compelling conversations about the kinds of ideas that arise as scholars engage in public research while leading private lives. More than one entry at frequencies starts with a reference to the writer’s youth: S. Brent Plate recalls summer camp the year Star Wars came out; Josef Sorett mentions the church of his upbringing; and Gary Laderman writes about the first time he dropped acid. Other authors frame their writing with more recent memories: a seminar conversation, a research trip, a good read. None quite fits the framing we have come to expect from academic writing. It’s refreshing, entertaining, and instructive. (These people have lives!) Scholars are not conceiving of projects and writing papers in isolation from their friends, families, or personal histories, a point Lofton makes in discussing the significance of her work.

When Lofton and Modern talk about Class 200, which is really what this whole conversation is about, they describe a grown-up version of frequencies. There they planted seeds, and, if we (and they) are lucky, Class 200 will bear the fruits of like-minded plants. (The series’ first book, Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention by David Marno, an assistant professor of English at UC Berkeley, will appear in December of this year.)

Class 200 is about revivifying a mode of research that requires time—time to maintain languages and time in the archives—in the midst of a systems (both Universities and academic publishers) that value speedy work and low-cost production. Modern and Lofton call for proposals from researchers whose work demonstrates depth with attention to the craft of writing: “How can we get our responsible swagger back as thinkers?” Lofton asks, “We tend to think that can happen partially by highlighting the ways in which prose is a huge site of hermeneutics.” These two speak with the energy they seek in Class 200 books. They stress importance of archives, “absorptive” work, “subtle” thought, “reflexive moves,” knowing the origins of one’s project, and knowing the reasons why one does what one does. They are looking for manuscripts that walk a line between encyclopedic knowledge and riveting writing, self-understanding and self-absorption, humility and swagger. (Aren’t we all?)

So what does that entail? Something wholly new, completely cutting-edge? Not in their estimation. As Modern explains, Class 200 will collect the work of reflective scholars (though not overly-confessional ones, as Lofton notes) whose projects have grown out of their fields’ wrestling with postcolonial theory and reckoning with historiographies. Yes, they’re looking for writers with methodological and disciplinary dexterity.

“So what?”

Over the course of their conversation, they develop—rather organically—an example of the relationship between religion’s description and its explanation: Clifford Geertz’s 1966 definition of religions and Talal Asad’s critical response to it. The example begins with Lofton, who points out that while many scholars recognize the shortcomings of Geertz’s work, we can’t stop reading it. Admittedly, it’s great fun to teach in undergrad courses. Why’s that?

Geertz’s is a reductionist definition that does not reduce religion to something over(t)ly simple. On first read, its parts are complicated, and so students have to wrestle with more than a single idea, such as individual’s solitariness or state of ultimate concern. Geertz implicates people in (the creation and maintenance of) religion to a greater degree than does Spiro’s “postulations,” for instance. For some students, this makes his definition difficult to accept. It is, in the end, good material for conversation. Asad found it so, too. (And others have since.[1])

Years after Geertz published his definition, Asad pointed to the anthropologist’s failure to relate culture, which for Geertz “enables people to communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes towards life,” with “‘life’ itself” or “the material conditions and activities for maintaining (or changing) life.”[2] Modern asks how our current moment—one in which “we feel this impingement of whatever you want to call it, neo-liberalism or crass capitalistic ethos”—compares to the 1990’s, a decade when concerns about theory materialized in the study of religions, concerns like those Asad raised in his 1983 response to Geertz. One conclusion—Modern’s—is that impingement causes scholars to realize that “religion is constitutive of modernity, on some level . . . combined with a way in which you can revisit these massive archives, these scholarly corners that seem well-trod . . . and to see them in a new light.” It’s this new light Lofton and Modern hope to encounter in the pages of Class 200. I do, too.

References

Asad, Talal. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” 1983, 237.

 

[1] See, for example, Schilbrack, Kevin. “Religion, Models of, and Reality: Are We Through with Geertz?.” Journal of The American Academy of Religion. 73, no. 2 (June 2005): 429-452; or Strenski, Ivan. “Talal Asad’s ‘Religion’ Trouble and a Way Out.” Method & Theory in The Study of Religion. 22, no. 2/3 (October 2010): 136-155.

[2] Asad, Talal. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” Man. 18, no. 2. (June 1983): 238-239.

Historicism, Reflexivity, and Our Discourses on Theory: Or, Why Lacan Is Not a Garnish

In this interview, Adam Miller speaks with Kathryn Lofton and John Modern about their new book series with University of Chicago Press, titled Class 200: New Studies in Religion. According to the series description, Lofton and Modern invite proposals by authors who understand that “descriptions of religion [are] always bound up in explanations for it.” As Lofton notes in the interview, even a scholar such as Clifford Geertz, who presented himself as merely describing rituals he’s observed, for instance, was—as is clear in retrospect—situated in certain relations of power that shaped how he represented the colonial subjects he studied. Our “mere” descriptions are always invested in power relations and unstated assumptions or explanations about how the world works, about which we, as scholars, must be ceaselessly reflexive. We must relentlessly historicize our subjectivity, our scholarly production, and their relation to our object of study. Without that reflexivity, we risk producing the sort of self-serving narratives that orientalist scholars constructed about the “others” of western empire.

I concur with Lofton and Modern: without theoretical sophistication and reflexivity, we risk—at best—falling into naïve empiricism, or—at worst—contributing to the reproduction of hegemonic discourses that reproduce systematic asymmetrical power relations (in the spirit of reflexivity, I should note that of course what I take to be “best” or “worse” hinges on my autobiography, my interests, and the sympathies I’ve been socialized with—your “best” and “worst” may diverge radically).

I suspect that the way we sometimes talk about “theory” contributes to mystifying the complex relations that obtain between scholar, the scholar’s theoretical apparatus, and the object (or subjects) of study. In particular, it is the “add theory and stir” approach to the use of theory in our scholarship, which K. Merinda Simmons rightly criticized on a NAASR panel last November in Atlanta.[1] On this view, theory is something that’s added to our recipe in order to spice up our work. We could do without theory altogether on this view: all that we know about our object of study could be known without theory, although theory makes for a nice finishing touch. Reading all that sociology, anthropology, and literary theory is nice, but at bottom they are just garnishes: you can throw a little parsley and Lacan next to the steak and potatoes to make the presentation more colorful, but the steak and potatoes would taste the same without it.

I often find that those who use this sort of “add theory and stir” approach talk about theory as a “lens” that invites a certain perspective on the subject. The metaphor of the lens is problematic in at least two ways. First, it suggests a metaphysical dualism: the thing in itself is “out there,” and theory gets in between our vision and the thing in itself. The naïve empiricist thus despises theory: wouldn’t we see more clearly if we took the colored glasses off and looked directly at our objects of study? Theory distorts true vision!

The second problem with the “lens” metaphor is that it invites us to consider objects of study as existing “out there” in the world, independently of our vision. On this view, things exist independently of our construction of them, and different theoretical lenses permit differently useful perspectives on those things. Religions just exist, although a Marxist lens might help focus our attention on the class related elements. Religions just exist, although a feminist lens might help focus our attention on gender related elements.

By contrast, as a post-structuralist I’m persuaded that the world does not exist independently of our vision. On this view, scholarship on religion creates religious phenomena (if, indeed, we find “religions” to be useful things to construct). The application of a discursive apparatus is a condition of manifesting the “things” we study in the first place. Theory, from this perspective, is not something that’s added to a world that is already fully present to us; on the contrary, the things are after-effects of the theory. Hence: Freudians find repression and penis envy, Marxists find ideology and exploitation, feminists find constructed genders and patriarchy. Change your discourse and you’ll find different “objects” in front of you, in just the same way that gerrymandered space literally produces different political spaces simply by renaming them. “Language does not enter into a world of completed objective perceptions, simply to add to objects—already given and clearly delimited from one another—‘names’ that would be purely exterior and arbitrary signs; rather, [language] is itself a mediator in the formation of objects.”[2]

If we stopped referring to theory as a “lens” that colors our vision of the things-in-themselves that exist independently of our discourse, we might find we’re more open to seeing the constitutive role of theory in producing the visions we create, or the prior role of explanation in our “mere” descriptions.

In any case, I look forward to the volumes in Lofton and Modern’s series, and I hope the contributing authors rise to meet the demand for reflexivity called for by the series editors.

[1] Simmons’ paper was titled “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study.”

[2] Ernst Cassirer, quoted by Marshall Sahlins in Islands of History (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Descriptions of Religion as Explanations of Religion

In this week’s podcast, Kathryn Lofton and John Modern join Adam Miller for a conversation that hovers around the relationship between description and explanation in the study of religion, and the notion that the way scholars of religion think about their categories of analysis shapes what they say about a given set of data and how they say it. Given the entanglement of description and explanation, Lofton and Modern stress the responsibility scholars of religion have to know their material deeply, to be aware of the history of their field and categories of analysis, and to speak to issues/questions beyond their areas of speciality.

Kathryn Lofton is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. She is the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, the soon-to-be-published Consuming Religion, and is currently working on the religious contexts of Bob Dylan. John Modern is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Franklin & Marshall College. He is the author of Secularism in Antebellum America and is currently pursuing two book projects—one on machines and cognitive science, and another on Devo and rubber. In addition to their solo-enterprises, they have worked together on a couple of things—Frequencies, a collaborative genealogy of spirituality, for example, and most recently a book series to be published by the University of Chicago Press titled Class 200.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, camping gear, masquerade masks, and more.

 

Podcasts

Modern & Lofton Illumine “Religion”

Modern: “I think . . . one of the underlying directives of Class 200 is to get that kind of conversation going, just that very notion of is there a relationship between description and explanation and what is it . . . The idea, I think underlying Class 200, is this notion that the way in which you write informs your argument, right, and so the very categories and the kinds of criteria you use to find religion, locate religion, describe religion is going to figure in to what kind of case you’re making about religion. And so I think it’s just that kind of move that doesn’t seem too revolutionary at all but seems to me not foregrounded enough in terms of when I look out on the field of Religious Studies on the past fifty years. It’s not like it’s absent, but I would like to promote it.”

Lofton: “How can the study of religion persist in the wake of postcolonial critiques? What is the right to absorb yourself in material?”

That’s how the conversation about the relationship between the description of religion and its explanation starts between professors Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern and University of Chicago graduate student Adam Miller. Frequent collaborators, Lofton and Modern curated frequencies and now edit the University of Chicago Press’ series Class 200. If you missed frequencies, go have a look. If you followed frequencies, the motivations behind and goals before Class 200 come as no surprise.

Wherever they go, Lofton and Modern host uncommonly compelling conversations about the kinds of ideas that arise as scholars engage in public research while leading private lives. More than one entry at frequencies starts with a reference to the writer’s youth: S. Brent Plate recalls summer camp the year Star Wars came out; Josef Sorett mentions the church of his upbringing; and Gary Laderman writes about the first time he dropped acid. Other authors frame their writing with more recent memories: a seminar conversation, a research trip, a good read. None quite fits the framing we have come to expect from academic writing. It’s refreshing, entertaining, and instructive. (These people have lives!) Scholars are not conceiving of projects and writing papers in isolation from their friends, families, or personal histories, a point Lofton makes in discussing the significance of her work.

When Lofton and Modern talk about Class 200, which is really what this whole conversation is about, they describe a grown-up version of frequencies. There they planted seeds, and, if we (and they) are lucky, Class 200 will bear the fruits of like-minded plants. (The series’ first book, Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention by David Marno, an assistant professor of English at UC Berkeley, will appear in December of this year.)

Class 200 is about revivifying a mode of research that requires time—time to maintain languages and time in the archives—in the midst of a systems (both Universities and academic publishers) that value speedy work and low-cost production. Modern and Lofton call for proposals from researchers whose work demonstrates depth with attention to the craft of writing: “How can we get our responsible swagger back as thinkers?” Lofton asks, “We tend to think that can happen partially by highlighting the ways in which prose is a huge site of hermeneutics.” These two speak with the energy they seek in Class 200 books. They stress importance of archives, “absorptive” work, “subtle” thought, “reflexive moves,” knowing the origins of one’s project, and knowing the reasons why one does what one does. They are looking for manuscripts that walk a line between encyclopedic knowledge and riveting writing, self-understanding and self-absorption, humility and swagger. (Aren’t we all?)

So what does that entail? Something wholly new, completely cutting-edge? Not in their estimation. As Modern explains, Class 200 will collect the work of reflective scholars (though not overly-confessional ones, as Lofton notes) whose projects have grown out of their fields’ wrestling with postcolonial theory and reckoning with historiographies. Yes, they’re looking for writers with methodological and disciplinary dexterity.

“So what?”

Over the course of their conversation, they develop—rather organically—an example of the relationship between religion’s description and its explanation: Clifford Geertz’s 1966 definition of religions and Talal Asad’s critical response to it. The example begins with Lofton, who points out that while many scholars recognize the shortcomings of Geertz’s work, we can’t stop reading it. Admittedly, it’s great fun to teach in undergrad courses. Why’s that?

Geertz’s is a reductionist definition that does not reduce religion to something over(t)ly simple. On first read, its parts are complicated, and so students have to wrestle with more than a single idea, such as individual’s solitariness or state of ultimate concern. Geertz implicates people in (the creation and maintenance of) religion to a greater degree than does Spiro’s “postulations,” for instance. For some students, this makes his definition difficult to accept. It is, in the end, good material for conversation. Asad found it so, too. (And others have since.[1])

Years after Geertz published his definition, Asad pointed to the anthropologist’s failure to relate culture, which for Geertz “enables people to communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes towards life,” with “‘life’ itself” or “the material conditions and activities for maintaining (or changing) life.”[2] Modern asks how our current moment—one in which “we feel this impingement of whatever you want to call it, neo-liberalism or crass capitalistic ethos”—compares to the 1990’s, a decade when concerns about theory materialized in the study of religions, concerns like those Asad raised in his 1983 response to Geertz. One conclusion—Modern’s—is that impingement causes scholars to realize that “religion is constitutive of modernity, on some level . . . combined with a way in which you can revisit these massive archives, these scholarly corners that seem well-trod . . . and to see them in a new light.” It’s this new light Lofton and Modern hope to encounter in the pages of Class 200. I do, too.

References

Asad, Talal. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” 1983, 237.

 

[1] See, for example, Schilbrack, Kevin. “Religion, Models of, and Reality: Are We Through with Geertz?.” Journal of The American Academy of Religion. 73, no. 2 (June 2005): 429-452; or Strenski, Ivan. “Talal Asad’s ‘Religion’ Trouble and a Way Out.” Method & Theory in The Study of Religion. 22, no. 2/3 (October 2010): 136-155.

[2] Asad, Talal. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” Man. 18, no. 2. (June 1983): 238-239.

Historicism, Reflexivity, and Our Discourses on Theory: Or, Why Lacan Is Not a Garnish

In this interview, Adam Miller speaks with Kathryn Lofton and John Modern about their new book series with University of Chicago Press, titled Class 200: New Studies in Religion. According to the series description, Lofton and Modern invite proposals by authors who understand that “descriptions of religion [are] always bound up in explanations for it.” As Lofton notes in the interview, even a scholar such as Clifford Geertz, who presented himself as merely describing rituals he’s observed, for instance, was—as is clear in retrospect—situated in certain relations of power that shaped how he represented the colonial subjects he studied. Our “mere” descriptions are always invested in power relations and unstated assumptions or explanations about how the world works, about which we, as scholars, must be ceaselessly reflexive. We must relentlessly historicize our subjectivity, our scholarly production, and their relation to our object of study. Without that reflexivity, we risk producing the sort of self-serving narratives that orientalist scholars constructed about the “others” of western empire.

I concur with Lofton and Modern: without theoretical sophistication and reflexivity, we risk—at best—falling into naïve empiricism, or—at worst—contributing to the reproduction of hegemonic discourses that reproduce systematic asymmetrical power relations (in the spirit of reflexivity, I should note that of course what I take to be “best” or “worse” hinges on my autobiography, my interests, and the sympathies I’ve been socialized with—your “best” and “worst” may diverge radically).

I suspect that the way we sometimes talk about “theory” contributes to mystifying the complex relations that obtain between scholar, the scholar’s theoretical apparatus, and the object (or subjects) of study. In particular, it is the “add theory and stir” approach to the use of theory in our scholarship, which K. Merinda Simmons rightly criticized on a NAASR panel last November in Atlanta.[1] On this view, theory is something that’s added to our recipe in order to spice up our work. We could do without theory altogether on this view: all that we know about our object of study could be known without theory, although theory makes for a nice finishing touch. Reading all that sociology, anthropology, and literary theory is nice, but at bottom they are just garnishes: you can throw a little parsley and Lacan next to the steak and potatoes to make the presentation more colorful, but the steak and potatoes would taste the same without it.

I often find that those who use this sort of “add theory and stir” approach talk about theory as a “lens” that invites a certain perspective on the subject. The metaphor of the lens is problematic in at least two ways. First, it suggests a metaphysical dualism: the thing in itself is “out there,” and theory gets in between our vision and the thing in itself. The naïve empiricist thus despises theory: wouldn’t we see more clearly if we took the colored glasses off and looked directly at our objects of study? Theory distorts true vision!

The second problem with the “lens” metaphor is that it invites us to consider objects of study as existing “out there” in the world, independently of our vision. On this view, things exist independently of our construction of them, and different theoretical lenses permit differently useful perspectives on those things. Religions just exist, although a Marxist lens might help focus our attention on the class related elements. Religions just exist, although a feminist lens might help focus our attention on gender related elements.

By contrast, as a post-structuralist I’m persuaded that the world does not exist independently of our vision. On this view, scholarship on religion creates religious phenomena (if, indeed, we find “religions” to be useful things to construct). The application of a discursive apparatus is a condition of manifesting the “things” we study in the first place. Theory, from this perspective, is not something that’s added to a world that is already fully present to us; on the contrary, the things are after-effects of the theory. Hence: Freudians find repression and penis envy, Marxists find ideology and exploitation, feminists find constructed genders and patriarchy. Change your discourse and you’ll find different “objects” in front of you, in just the same way that gerrymandered space literally produces different political spaces simply by renaming them. “Language does not enter into a world of completed objective perceptions, simply to add to objects—already given and clearly delimited from one another—‘names’ that would be purely exterior and arbitrary signs; rather, [language] is itself a mediator in the formation of objects.”[2]

If we stopped referring to theory as a “lens” that colors our vision of the things-in-themselves that exist independently of our discourse, we might find we’re more open to seeing the constitutive role of theory in producing the visions we create, or the prior role of explanation in our “mere” descriptions.

In any case, I look forward to the volumes in Lofton and Modern’s series, and I hope the contributing authors rise to meet the demand for reflexivity called for by the series editors.

[1] Simmons’ paper was titled “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study.”

[2] Ernst Cassirer, quoted by Marshall Sahlins in Islands of History (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Descriptions of Religion as Explanations of Religion

In this week’s podcast, Kathryn Lofton and John Modern join Adam Miller for a conversation that hovers around the relationship between description and explanation in the study of religion, and the notion that the way scholars of religion think about their categories of analysis shapes what they say about a given set of data and how they say it. Given the entanglement of description and explanation, Lofton and Modern stress the responsibility scholars of religion have to know their material deeply, to be aware of the history of their field and categories of analysis, and to speak to issues/questions beyond their areas of speciality.

Kathryn Lofton is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. She is the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, the soon-to-be-published Consuming Religion, and is currently working on the religious contexts of Bob Dylan. John Modern is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Franklin & Marshall College. He is the author of Secularism in Antebellum America and is currently pursuing two book projects—one on machines and cognitive science, and another on Devo and rubber. In addition to their solo-enterprises, they have worked together on a couple of things—Frequencies, a collaborative genealogy of spirituality, for example, and most recently a book series to be published by the University of Chicago Press titled Class 200.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, camping gear, masquerade masks, and more.