Posts

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).

Identity and Capitalism

This interview with Craig Martin explores the limits of identity formation under modern Capitalism. Martin’s work Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie focuses on the ways in which culture and religion are produced for consumption.

Have we ignored the ways in which identity is produced and reproduced under capitalism’s pressure? The casual use of the term “spirituality” today has become one way literary works have created a space where the social conditions of religious identity appear as identity forming. Cultivating spiritual cache may seem benign, but Martin argues here for a critical gaze about the ways in which even our most basic claims about religious identity are constructed in ways that obscure rather that clarify the cultural pressures and structures that surround us.

Social Constructionism, and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion, as well as Craig Martin’s previous podcast appearances. 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, Gilbert & Sullivan librettos, ruby slippers, and more.

Getting to Know the North American Association for the Study of Religion

In this interview, Russell McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes discuss the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), an international organization dedicated to historical, critical, and social scientific approaches to the study of religion. McCutcheon and Hughes (the president and vice president of NAASR, respectively) discuss the history of NAASR, their attempt to help return NAASR to its original mission, various publications associated with NAASR, and the philosophy or motivations that guided their annual conference this year.

In January 2016, we welcomed the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) as an additional sponsor. We are indebted to NAASR for their generosity, and we look forward to working with them in the years to come to continue what we do, and to bring about some important and long-planned innovations.

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) was initially formed in 1985 by E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe, to encourage the historical, comparative, structural, theoretical, and cognitive approaches to the study of religion among North American scholars; to represent North American scholars of religion at the international level; and to sustain communication between North American scholars and their international colleagues engaged in the study of religion.

Please see their website for more information on their activities, and for membership details. NAASR is incorporated as a nonprofit in the state of Vermont. A brief history of NAASR, written by Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, can be found here.

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, incense, driving gloves, and more.

The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies

Our interview this week features Chris speaking to Professor Donald Wiebe from the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College in the University of Toronto on the relationship between Theology and Religious Studies.

Out of necessity this interview was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week. You can also listen to this podcast on iTunes, and subscribe to receive our weekly interviews.

The relationship between Theology and Religious Studies  is not a simple one. David Ford writes that at its broadest, theology is thinking about questions raised by and about religions (2000:3). These questions are largely directed towards notions of transcendence (typically gods), incorporate doctrinal issues and are “essentially a second-order activity arising from ‘faith’ and interpreting faith” (Whaling, 1999:228-229). Essentially, theology is thinking about religion from within religion – although when most people refer to “Theology”, what they mean is “Christian Theology”.

It is generally accepted – at least as far as most academics are concerned – that there is a distinct difference between religious studies and theology. This is succinctly summarised by Ninian Smart’s statement that “historical and structural enquiries, such as sociology, phenomenology, etc., […] are the proper province of [the study of] Religion, and the use of such materials for Expressive ends […is] the doing of Theology” (in Wiebe, 1999:55).

As you shall see from this interview, however, things are much more complicated, and Professor Wiebe is particularly qualified to present his own take on the relationship between these two distinct disciplines. His primary areas of research interest are philosophy of the social sciences, epistemology, philosophy of religion, the history of the academic and scientific study of religion, and method and theory in the study of religion. He is the author of a number of books, including Religion and Truth: Towards and Alternative Paradigm for the Study of Religion (1981), The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought (1991), and, of particular relevance to this interview, The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy (1999). In 1985 Professor Wiebe, with Luther H. Martin and E. Thomas Lawson, founded the North American Association for the Study of Religion, which became affiliated to the IAHR in 1990; he twice served as President of that Association (1986-87, 1991-92).

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference in Budapest in September 2011, where Professor Wiebe also presented a particularly relevant paper with his colleague Luther H. Martin, entitled “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion”. Out of necessity it was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week.

Jonathan Z Smith: “[R]eligion is an inextricably human phenomenon. […] Religious studies are [therefore] most appropriately described in relation to the Humanities and the Human Sciences, in relation to Anthropology rather than Theology. What we study when we study religion is one mode of constructing worlds of meaning, worlds within which men find themselves and in which they choose to dwell.” (1978, Map is Not Territory, 290)

References:

Ford, David F., 2000 [1999]. Theology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whaling, Frank, 1999. “Theological Approaches” in Peter Connoly (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell, pp. 226-274.

Wiebe, Donald, 1999. The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Podcasts

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).

Identity and Capitalism

This interview with Craig Martin explores the limits of identity formation under modern Capitalism. Martin’s work Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie focuses on the ways in which culture and religion are produced for consumption.

Have we ignored the ways in which identity is produced and reproduced under capitalism’s pressure? The casual use of the term “spirituality” today has become one way literary works have created a space where the social conditions of religious identity appear as identity forming. Cultivating spiritual cache may seem benign, but Martin argues here for a critical gaze about the ways in which even our most basic claims about religious identity are constructed in ways that obscure rather that clarify the cultural pressures and structures that surround us.

Social Constructionism, and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion, as well as Craig Martin’s previous podcast appearances. 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, Gilbert & Sullivan librettos, ruby slippers, and more.

Getting to Know the North American Association for the Study of Religion

In this interview, Russell McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes discuss the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), an international organization dedicated to historical, critical, and social scientific approaches to the study of religion. McCutcheon and Hughes (the president and vice president of NAASR, respectively) discuss the history of NAASR, their attempt to help return NAASR to its original mission, various publications associated with NAASR, and the philosophy or motivations that guided their annual conference this year.

In January 2016, we welcomed the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) as an additional sponsor. We are indebted to NAASR for their generosity, and we look forward to working with them in the years to come to continue what we do, and to bring about some important and long-planned innovations.

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) was initially formed in 1985 by E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe, to encourage the historical, comparative, structural, theoretical, and cognitive approaches to the study of religion among North American scholars; to represent North American scholars of religion at the international level; and to sustain communication between North American scholars and their international colleagues engaged in the study of religion.

Please see their website for more information on their activities, and for membership details. NAASR is incorporated as a nonprofit in the state of Vermont. A brief history of NAASR, written by Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, can be found here.

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, incense, driving gloves, and more.

The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies

Our interview this week features Chris speaking to Professor Donald Wiebe from the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College in the University of Toronto on the relationship between Theology and Religious Studies.

Out of necessity this interview was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week. You can also listen to this podcast on iTunes, and subscribe to receive our weekly interviews.

The relationship between Theology and Religious Studies  is not a simple one. David Ford writes that at its broadest, theology is thinking about questions raised by and about religions (2000:3). These questions are largely directed towards notions of transcendence (typically gods), incorporate doctrinal issues and are “essentially a second-order activity arising from ‘faith’ and interpreting faith” (Whaling, 1999:228-229). Essentially, theology is thinking about religion from within religion – although when most people refer to “Theology”, what they mean is “Christian Theology”.

It is generally accepted – at least as far as most academics are concerned – that there is a distinct difference between religious studies and theology. This is succinctly summarised by Ninian Smart’s statement that “historical and structural enquiries, such as sociology, phenomenology, etc., […] are the proper province of [the study of] Religion, and the use of such materials for Expressive ends […is] the doing of Theology” (in Wiebe, 1999:55).

As you shall see from this interview, however, things are much more complicated, and Professor Wiebe is particularly qualified to present his own take on the relationship between these two distinct disciplines. His primary areas of research interest are philosophy of the social sciences, epistemology, philosophy of religion, the history of the academic and scientific study of religion, and method and theory in the study of religion. He is the author of a number of books, including Religion and Truth: Towards and Alternative Paradigm for the Study of Religion (1981), The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought (1991), and, of particular relevance to this interview, The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy (1999). In 1985 Professor Wiebe, with Luther H. Martin and E. Thomas Lawson, founded the North American Association for the Study of Religion, which became affiliated to the IAHR in 1990; he twice served as President of that Association (1986-87, 1991-92).

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference in Budapest in September 2011, where Professor Wiebe also presented a particularly relevant paper with his colleague Luther H. Martin, entitled “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion”. Out of necessity it was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week.

Jonathan Z Smith: “[R]eligion is an inextricably human phenomenon. […] Religious studies are [therefore] most appropriately described in relation to the Humanities and the Human Sciences, in relation to Anthropology rather than Theology. What we study when we study religion is one mode of constructing worlds of meaning, worlds within which men find themselves and in which they choose to dwell.” (1978, Map is Not Territory, 290)

References:

Ford, David F., 2000 [1999]. Theology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whaling, Frank, 1999. “Theological Approaches” in Peter Connoly (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell, pp. 226-274.

Wiebe, Donald, 1999. The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy. New York: St Martin’s Press.