Sunday in the Park with Theory
Podcast with Jason Ā. Josephson Storm (18 April 2022).
Interviewed by Dan Gorman
Transcribed by Jacob Noblett
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sunday-in-the-park-with-theory/
Metamodernism, Theory, Humanism, Social Sciences, Religion, Poststructuralism, Postmodernism, Modernism, Deconstruction, Semiotics, Hylosemiotics, Nature, Philosophy, Zeteticism, Stephen Sondheim, Sturgill Simpson
[Musical excerpt from Sunday in the Park with George] 2:15
“Stop worrying where you’re going, move on. If you can know where you’re going, you’ve gone. Just keep moving on…” (2017).1
Jason Ā. Josephson Storm (JS) 2:29
Dan Gorman (DG) 2:30
(laughs) This is The Religious Studies Project. I’m Dan Gorman and I’ll be your host today as we discuss Metamodernism: The Future of Theory by Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm, published in summer 2021 by the University of Chicago Press. Dr. Storm, thank you for joining us.
Yeah, it’s my pleasure. This is really exciting. Look forward to talking to you today.
So the first time I heard the term “metamodernism” was actually in a country music album by Sturgill Simpson, 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. And I took metamodernism to mean sort of a mixture of playful and serious. As an example, you have a country singer earnestly singing a cover of a New Wave song in the middle of the album. But we’re not talking about pop music, and we’re not talking about country metamodernism. So, I’m curious, how did you light upon the term metamodernism to describe this project?
Great. Yes. So first, I came to the term metamodernism actually rather late in the project, and it may not be as centrally relevant as the title makes it sound. In an early review of the project, I was calling the book “Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory After Postmodernism”, but people commenting on it kept referring to it as an example of ‘post-postmodernism.’ And the term, the phrase post-postmodernism made me want to throw up. It was really terrible. And so, it was clear to me that people wanted to assimilate it to an -ism. And it didn’t fit in many of the existing isms of the current moment. It’s not postmodern, it’s not modernist. It isn’t really new materialist, I engage with those folk, but it’s not that. It’s not critical realist, etc., etc., etc. And so, I was kind of looking around in the very final phases of the project to kind of connect it up to an -ism.
And I was reminded of something I’d read a long time ago by a Nigerian artist historian named Moyo Okediji, who had used the term metamodern to describe artists who are intentionally trying to push the boundaries of modernist and postmodernist art at the same time. He was particularly talking about postcolonial artists from the vantage point of the Black diasporic world, including himself. So, it was sort of a manifesto and that really resonated with me in a bunch of different ways. Especially also, it resonated with work like the duo that go by the name Hanzi Freinacht, who were also trying to sort of push beyond modernism and postmodernism in the field of politics. And what I wanted to do, I thought, as I thought about naming the project, was push beyond—both subvert, transcend—both modernism and postmodernism in the terrain of scholarship.
But unlike many other folks have used the word metamodern, I’m not trying to describe a pre-existing phenomen[on]. I’m not talking about meta-modernity. I’m not saying that there’s certain kinds of art that I want to, you know, baptise with the name ‘metamodern’, or what have you. Instead of describing a paradigm shift, I was actually trying to produce a paradigm shift. And so, what I was in that respect doing, was working out my own intellectual paths. And I was using postmodernism, in the sense, in a very specific way to describe a particular scholarly paradigm that came to dominance in the Anglo-American academy, really, in the 80s, and 90s, as a bricolage of French theory from earlier decades. And it was how we were trained in many of the human sciences in the period up until maybe the early 2000s. And it was a model that had kind of begun to break down. And I wanted to consolidate the good stuff in postmodernism as an academic model, as well as transcend its limitations.
So, in a way, to get past postmodernism by radicalising it, would be one way to think about it, or you might call the whole book “Confessions of a Recovering Postmodernist”, it’s not quite like that, but I definitely emerged from within that milieu. And I’m trying to figure out what parts of it are actually doing the work we needed to do and what parts have become self-defeating. For much of my intellectual life, I’ve been a heretic of philosophy, we might say—interested in particular East Asian philosophy, but also the kind of philosophical figures who have been excluded from particularly analytic philosophy departments. And so as a grad student in Cambridge, in Oxford, in Paris, in Tokyo; I just went to the lectures by people who were trending so called “postmodernist philosophers”—people like Jacques Derrida, people like Cornel West who are engaging with the category of postmodernism, people like Richard Rorty. And I really marinated and tried to assimilate that stuff. And a lot of it was really good, but it has its own limitations. So, in a way, the project is an attempt to kind of work through and past ‘postmodernism’ in theory. It’s just the way we’re treating scholars and religious studies.
So my, one of my main scholarly role models, for example, was Bernard Faure, who was on my dissertation committee, and who was central for integrating theory from French thought of the period in the study of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. So, all of this was providing a kind of scholarly model. So, I mean, postmodernism is a scholarly model that can be defined both by orientation to the discipline, and I think for many of us, had something inspiring and exciting about it, but also had its limitations. And it’s not what we’re doing now. And there’s room for and time for moving past postmodernism, a post-mortem, we might say a postmodernism is an order to consolidate what was good about it, and why it was appealing in the first place, and how we might move past it.
And I think that there’s been a bunch of different alternate post-postmodernisms on offer, and so far, most of them, to my mind, haven’t really grappled with the real philosophical issues that postmodernism brought up. So, neither one of us wants to stay in the old postmodern moment, nor do I want to reject it and just sort of leap willy-nilly into some newly idealised modernism that then pretends there were never any problems, etc. So, this is an attempt to work through postmodernism, dialectically, and out the other side.
I think it might be helpful at this point to talk a little bit about what falls into modernism and postmodernism camps. Now, in my own experience, I’ve trained as a historian, and the modernist era—sort of the 1920s, through like the early Cold War, if you want to call that the modernist period. On the one hand, you had historians who were very interested in objective facts, of empirical facts, politics, economics, that dream of objectivity. But at the same time, you had modernist artists who were very into subjectivity and personal expression and things that weren’t necessarily purely empirical, hard social sciences. So already, that’s a break. And what modernism is, there wasn’t a single modernism; that if you skip ahead to the postmodern era of the 70s, to the 90s, if you want to call it that, you have on the one hand, all these historians and artists getting interested in critical theory and questioning the status quo. Where do our assumptions come from?
So again, very subjective, which you could say is a bit like modernism. But on the other hand, in the 70s, to the 90s, you had all these religious studies scholars getting really into materialism, and studying observable, objective evidence, which, again, seems like modernism. And what I’m trying to say here is that it doesn’t seem like there was a single modernism or a single postmodernism. From my vantage point, it was interesting to read about your book, saying that it’s an attack—not an attack—but a critique of modernism and postmodernism. But in a way, aren’t both categories sort of artificial and unstable?
Well, it’s actually good that you make a point, because that’s exactly the kind of theory that I’m actually doing in the book. In other words, most of our conceptual categories have a similar kind of instability built into them. So, there are many different things we might want to mean by the word ‘postmodernism’, for example. So, there’s not like an essential postmodernism in art looks—so-called self-referentially such—looked very different and didn’t necessarily share properties in common with postmodernism in literature, didn’t necessarily share properties in common with postmodernism in the academic disciplines. So, a lot of different things could get flagged as postmodernism.
So, the question becomes in the process of… So, I have a lot of theory in the book that I don’t want to kind of skip ahead to, but that talks about how we might productively use our analytical categories, our social kinds, for lack of a better term. And I’ve been using postmodernism as a very specific kind of social kind; I’m selecting from the range of possible postmodernisms—different things that are labelled as postmodernism—and I’m selecting things, certain kinds of works that have been clustered together in the academy, and I have a causal story for why those works were clustered together. So, in brief, there was a historical moment that started, we could argue about exactly when, in the Anglo-American academy, but in the 80s, or 90s, where we have simultaneously the shift for positivism in philosophy that rendered philosophy as an analytical discipline, largely irrelevant to the work, for a time anyway, happening in many humanistic disciplines.
So, the Vienna positivism just didn’t work very well, if you wanted to study art history, for example. But people wanted to be able to make generalisations. We often wanted to talk about the things that we were doing in terms of larger patterns and structures. And we needed a kind of theoretical edifice to think about the ethical values in our work, to think about their epistemologies, their notions of knowledge, etc. And so for various historically specific reasons, English literature departments, having been primed to look for something different because of the literary functions of existentialism, began importing into the academy, a sort of bricolage selection of French theorists, many of whom disagreed with each other, almost none of whom called themselves postmodernists. And then some of that then expanded to related figures from the same period in Germany or in the United States. And together in places like textbooks, but also in graduate programs, etc., these were stitched together to produce a kind of postmodernism, so-called, and it had fairly stable characteristics.
The surprise is that it tended to focus on five different kinds of problems that I talked about, [or] five different properties, as I talked about it with my analytical edifice. That particular model was diffused slightly differently in different academic disciplines but tended to have similar kinds of functions to it. We could go into detail what they were, but I want to say that it’s that sort of compilatory process that pushed these things together. But then once it became a model, it became a model in two respects: it became an antithetical model against which people define themselves in opposition, or it became a model in which theorists come to define themselves as postmodernists even though the thinkers they were referencing to didn’t understand themselves together in that way.
So American academics, for example, would read a snippet of Derrida, a snippet of [Michel] Foucault, not knowing that those dudes hated each other for at least 10 years and totally argued, would add in a little bit of [Gilles] Deleuze, maybe a little bit of [Martin] Heidegger, and then would take that material to do film theory, or what have you, in a particular historical moment in the academy. And what kind of work, you might ask, what work were these references to Derrida and Foucault doing in their scholarly projects? And a lot of it was questions of knowledge, questions of value, questions of ‘realism’, questions of the constituents of the social world, questions of ethics, etc. And so, in that respect, there are many different possible kinds of postmodernisms. But the other key to the way that this ‘postmodernism’ was formulated—there are two of the things I want to observe about this, because we’re historians, we can talk about it as a historical artifact.
There are two of the key features. One, many of the philosophical issues associated with postmodernism preceded the arrival of the French theory in the academy. So, for example, New Criticism in English departments—Derrida never really said, “everything is only a text.” The [translated] Derridan phrase that “there’s no outside of the text” (1967), meant something very different. But in new criticism, there was the argument that there was nothing other than the text. And in fact, in new criticism, also, we have the first formulation of the death of the author. This is 40 years or something before Roland Barthes formulated his formulation of the Death of the Author (1967). We have it actually in the Anglo-American academy.
So, in the first instance, I want to say this thing that gets knit together in a new formulation as postmodernism is often the use of French and German, etc., theorists in translation to address indigenous concerns and often building off pre-existing philosophical debates. But then, the second point is that postmodernism often framed itself in dialectical opposition or in direct opposition to something called modernism, which you’re right, is a weird caricature. Because if we look historically at, for example, postmodernism in art and modernism in art, they actually shared, for example, many overlapping features. Or even in philosophy, philosophers who call themselves modernists often made reference to [Friedrich] Nietzsche, before Nietzsche was baptised in the central figure of postmodernism. So, there are certain kinds of continuities, but they began to produce each other in opposition, and the postmodernists, insofar as people embrace the label, attacked what they saw as modernists or positivists, which they identified together, producing an opposing category.
And we can see—and I say this is dialectical, but it’s pretty clear in the names that became associated with postmodernism in the academy—that they’re all negative dialectical formulations. Postmodernism, that’s a negation; it’s a post of modernism. Deconstruction, it is a negation of construction. Anti-essentialism, a negation of essentialism; anti-foundationalism, etc., etc., etc. So, what I’m interested in is the place where those ideas gelled together, and then what causally brought them together. And so I have a section on that in the introduction. It’s probably the part that most people might want to skip in the book if you don’t really care about the historical nitty gritty. And I say, you might actually want to skip it, because at the end of the day, too, what I’m doing in the book, although I’m working out of postmodernism, doesn’t rest on those foundations. It’s an attempt to do first order philosophy. Every argument in the book stands on its own. Whether I’ve read Derrida, or Derrida’s reception in the United States, correctly or incorrectly, it almost doesn’t matter. It’s just there just setting up the problems or the issues around which I focus a kind of intellectual attention.
And so, at the end of the day, what I’m trying to do is something very new. But from the vantage of people who either identify as postmodernists or anti-postmodernists, the project of mine is going to look like it’s either building off of postmodernism, or it’s repudiating it, depending on which area of concern the scholar is interested in. So, in that respect, it’s an attempt to do kind of a new, produce a new model for doing scholarship across the humanities and social sciences, but with a recognition that my own training was in a version of this postmodernism itself. So, I think it might help listeners particularly to this podcast, to get a sense of what I’m doing, if I connect it back up to the project of my first book, and then sort of talk about how it emerged out of that. And I say that because my first book, The Invention of Religion in Japan, for those of you who might or might not have read it, came out of a conversation in critical religion and post-colonial theory.
In effect, scholars in critical religion had spent a long time arguing that the category religion was a Eurocentric category that was fundamentally fraught, that it was not a universal found in all cultures and all peoples, you know, the individual atheists excepted. And so, I wanted to agree with the critique about the problem with universalising the category religion. But what I wanted to show that although it emerged from Anglo-American, and more broadly speaking European, historical horizon and concerns—so, although it was Western in its broad formulation, and colonial in its function—Japanese actors engaging with the category had some creative agency in assimilating that category. But in brief, I looked at how Japanese intellectuals looked at the term religion, tried to figure out, were forced to do so by these asymmetric trade treaties of people pointing guns at them, basically, American warships pointing guns at Japan, and how that forced these Japanese thinkers to come up with something that might be labelable by that category, religion in Japan.
To do that, they came up with a totally new term, shūkyō, which did not exist previously, and they came up with a legal institution to guarantee and defend or protect or define—all those were identified together—the category religion itself. So, in that respect, what I wanted to do was show how, on the first-hand, I grant the critique of the category religion, grant that its horizon within a particular colonial history, but also note that it isn’t quite as simplistic as the hegemonic imposition of a European Other over Japanese thinkers. And then the Japanese thinkers were themselves elites, who often then imposed the category newly constructed of religion on people within Japan, etc., etc., etc. So, you know, it became a complex process of negotiation at many levels.
What I wanted to suggest there—this, in many respects, the book Metamodernism builds off of that first book. I can talk about the ways that builds off of the second book, too, but for religious studies podcasts in particular, there’s been a history of religious studies where we could continue to fight the fight between universalists to try and generalise religion in some new way, located in the brain maybe or talk about, I don’t know, some kind of universal notion of cognitive religion, or what have you. Or theological notions of universalised religion; or a deconstructive turn in critical religion where we could spend all of our time just telling people that the category religion doesn’t apply anymore, that the category is fraught, that it is fundamentally problematic, etc., etc., etc. I want to grant that the category is problematic, but actually start from that.
And one of the moves that made this Metamodernism book possible, one of the first rounds of doing research on it was that it became clear to me already in the Japan book that religion was a problematic category. But already in that book, I observed that religion was not the only problematic category. Indeed, there was a parallel to the critique of the category religion in philosophy of science, sometimes called the ‘demarcation problem.’ It makes sense with the earlier critical trends in philosophy of science, like Kuhn, Thomas Kuhn, or [Norwood Russell] Hanson or Larry Laudan, who formulated specifically as a demarcation problem, or a whole host of critical work within the philosophy of science, which shows that science has similar problems to it, basically.
But already after that book—so I was thinking about the problematization and the historical specificity of the categories of religion and science—but I began to note that those are not the only two categories with issues. Often in religious studies, we’re presented with a sense that religion is uniquely problematic. Often in science and technology studies, were presented with a version of the argument that science is itself a uniquely problematic category. But neither of that is the case. Indeed, if you look back into the history, we can see that almost all the major academic disciplines have had problems with their categories, and if they have those problems, similar problems in a similar period. In other words, for example, disciplines started digesting their central object, disintegrating it. One of the first that I address in the book is in 1956, the philosopher of art, Morris Weitz who argues that art has historically constructed or has problems with it that it cannot be conceptually defined. Any attempt to define art, you always find artists who will transcend the definition of art.
So he began the critique of the category art and influenced himself by Ludwig Wittgenstein and others, but then by 1958, we have Dorothy Emmet and society. In the same year Raymond Williams and culture, and the same year, Norwood Russell Hanson and science. And by 61, we have Walter Ullmann criticising the political. By 61 in the same year, we have H. L. A. [Herbert Lionel Adolphus] Hart and the notion of the law. Then the year after that we have Wilfred Cantwell Smith, with his famous critique of the category religion. Thomas Kuhn’s assault on science in the same year, or at least complication of it in terms of the notion of paradigms, and ultimately, you know, keep going, blah, blah, blah. But as you’re a historian, you’ll of course know Hayden White’s critique of the category history in 1966. So, all of these category critiques start to happen in similar periods. And in the first case, I think scholars in religious studies will want to read this Metamodernism book because it’s the first book to line up all those critiques.
And one of the things that happens when you line up those critiques—I mean, I started writing this book, I was going to have a separate chapter on each of them. I actually wrote a whole chapter on culture and society, for instance, and their problematization, as well as religion, art and science. But it turns out, if you line up all those critiques, they have similar features to them. In fact, there’s certain kinds of, you know, they all tend to assemble competing definitions; they argue that the category in question is not definable; they decompose concepts often by reference to constituent family resemblance; they focus on exclusions built into the category; or they historicise the category—they know that the category has changed over time—; or they culturally relativise the category; they note that the category doesn’t apply outside of the Euro-American horizon.
They say people in South Asia, in traditional India do not have ‘our’ concept of art, for example. Or they note that the category is ethically fraught, that it has some kind of normative weight. To refer to this as a work of art, and not the scribble that’s on the board behind me—for example, the scribble that, you know, to entertain my daughter is not art—that’d be an evaluative statement to call that art or not art. Or to call something a science is to locate it in a particular notion of knowledge. All that is to say, there are a predictable set of moves. And there’s a whole chapter in the book where I lay out those moves. It’s a kind of deconstructive martial arts academy to train scholars to do the deconstruction. To bear, to show how to produce epistemological anarchy in any discipline, and in any area should you want to do it.
One thing you’re bringing up here is that—and you mentioned this in the book—is that you see critical theorists who are questioning these categories of there is no single universal category of religion, there is no single universal category of history or art. You talk about the shift from people using fixed nouns like ‘history,’ to critics using verbs like ‘historicise,’ to convey flux. And I thought that was an interesting point, especially since with this book, you’re acknowledging all the interesting ideas and insights that came from this postmodern period. Like again, I’ve been trained pretty heavily in Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s idea of religion is historically specific to Europe. We have to look at other categories of behaviour around the world. Even you said your first book was heavily inspired by that critique. But now it almost sounds like you were saying we should bracket those concerns, and move on?
No, no, exactly the opposite. I’m saying we should grant those, and actually granting them changes them and fundamentally shifts their weight. So, when you think religion is the only screwed up category, you’re going to end—if you think that the main goal, you’re gonna have all these works that tend to terminate in the deconstruction of religion. There are works that go, here’s how religious studies has its own ideology, and here’s how, when you can deconstruct religion, or what have you. We want to shut down the conversation. For example, a J. Z. Smith, you know, religion is a construct of the scholars, not the thing that we’re studying. So, I want to say actually, we grant that critique, the first move is actually say, yes—we grant the critique, but we universalise it.
We say, Cantwell Smith, noticed that religion was a problem, but he tried to then produce the substitute term ‘faith’, for example, or‘cumulative tradition’. You could produce a similar critique of each of those words, exactly—almost exactly the same critique Cantwell Smith used of the category religion, you could reflect on to his own category of faith, for instance. So, what I want to suggest is that all of the terminology is equally problematic. But rather than assuming that that means we can’t do any scholarship, we actually can say, “well, what if we grant this problem authenticity, and then build off of it and work forward?” In other words, let me put it in a different way. And you’re exactly right when you emphasise the process nature of it as the key because we can address many of these critiques if we shift from what amounts to a substance to a process ontology of our area of study.
In other words, if we start thinking about what we’re studying in terms of processes, rather than in terms of fixed categories, it lets us actually see that those critiques are descriptions of the things that we’re studying. They don’t prohibit study, they’re actually characteristics of the very things that we study in our world. A lot of our concepts are normative. Our concepts tend to be—in the human sciences in particular—almost necessarily normative, for instance. So rather than saying that that discredits them, that turns out to be a feature of the things that we study. The other key piece is focusing on a process ontology allows us to presume—granting the critique—allows us to presume change and difference. But if we presume change and difference, then we have to explain the opposite thing in the previous work.
Let’s say if you’re like Foucault—I’m teaching a course on Foucault, so I’ve got Foucault in my head a lot. But, you know, Foucault likes to show how categories, let’s say, folie, or madness, changed over time. How they had certain watershed moments and fractures, how that there were just continuities in their genealogy. What we want to grant that all of our terminology has those kinds of changes over time, and we want to grant that all the terminology has fundamental kinds of variants. The things that we might capture, all have particular—can be historicised and relativised, in the same kind of ways. So, but instead of that seeming as a grand unmasking—when Foucault strips the mask off of madness, and says that it’s changed over time, for example—that isn’t his sole argument, but that’s a piece of it—shows that power is involved in its formation, etc., etc., we actually presume a stripped off mask, we presume that the category is changing.
And the thing to be explained is not when the term madness changes its meaning, but actually the opposite. When is there any kind of stability? When is there any kind of homogeneity? So, we presume change and difference, and instead, the thing to be explained becomes any kind of stability, any kind of self-similarity between the things that we’re analysing. So, in that respect, it’s a shift toward this. And I think the other thing that you were right, was to highlight the process language. And sometimes people have talked about processes—the Deleuzeans, for example, have used the word ‘process’ to describe flux under the assumption that processes are undescribable, right? That like, if you name something as a process, you’re just saying that it changes, and we can’t say anything about it.
Actually, I want to say the opposite in that we can track a process. Process—a lot of disciplines, chemistry, for example, in biology, are well studied. And we can actually study them. They’re not an unknowable flux. We may track how things have changed in the past, without having to worry about how their current dynamics will undermine our interpretation, although they might. There’s a lot of solid work, for example, that investigates the historical and cross-cultural unfolding of religion as a category, which is no less helpful given that the category has varied and changed. So yeah, we have to presume that kind of minimally, we just have to be gaining knowledge faster than the term in question is changing.
I think you I think you misunderstood me though, when I said that, we need to bracket the critiques of postmodernism. So questioning is their aesthetic category of religion that’s applicable everywhere. What I meant by bracket was what you were just getting into now, with this idea of saying, the critiques are valid, we can learn a lot from them. But we still, those of us who are interested in things like faith, cumulative tradition, whatever you call it—things associated with religion—we still want to study those things. And we don’t want to become caught in a trap of infinite, to go back to Sturgill Simpson, the “turtles all the way down” of critiquing forever. So, when I said bracket, what I was actually trying to argue, Jason is that you’re saying, we think about these things. They’re useful, and then bracket it in the sense of, but we still want to continue building something new and making something.
Reading this book, I found myself thinking of, strangely enough, the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George, which is a partial biography of Georges Seurat. So, a modernist art, well even a pre-modernist, he’s an impressionist, right? You know, with the pointillism paintings, right? But the score is very postmodern and atonal and jarring. And then at the end of the show, you have, you know, using postmodernism to make the argument of you have to move on, to the young artists, you have to put aside your postmodernist urges and be like your great grandfather George Surat, and create something new for yourself. And so, reading your book, talking about saying, postmodernism is useful, but you still at some point, need to get back to that almost modernist, the pursuit of making something whether that’s empirical or subjective, depends on your discipline. But yes, I found myself thinking of, you know, “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George. You have to move on.
I haven’t heard that musical. I’m unfortunately pretty ignorant of musicals. But—
Oh, man, Sondheim just died. You gotta listen to it.
I know. And apparently, he was actually a student at the college that I teach at. So, I, you know, there was, at least that’s what people were saying. But I think that you’re, that you’ve captured something right about the sentiment of the book. I mean, I think maybe what I’m trying to do… So, I was asked recently, for example, how does it change the way I teach? And maybe I can translate the—and maybe bridge the ground or communicate what I’m doing to tell you the difference of the way I teach?
That’s a very good idea. Because you even—and if I might advance a mild criticism of the book—you say in the introduction you wanted Metamodernism to not be jargon-heavy. I had to Google a lot of things in this book, and you do coin some terms like “hylosemiotics” and “ergonic convergence.” We don’t need to get totally down the theory rabbit hole here, but I just bring up—this would be a challenging book to teach to undergraduates because there’s a steep learning curve involved.
There is, and it assumes a philosophical vocabulary. And I always try and gloss terms because I don’t want to use jargon to hide behind.
Yes, you did do that. But I’m still saying it’s a dense text.
It is a very dense text. Totally, totally. So let me just tell you how it’s changed my teaching, for example. So, concretely, I used to teach a theory method in the study of religion course, which went through the canonical figures. It went through the [Émile] Durkheims and the [Max] Webers, you know, added in [W. E. B.] Du Bois and a few others that aren’t necessarily canonised, but it basically went through those. And then, in the last class or two, we would have the deconstructive turn. We would, we would look at the Wilfred Cantwell Smiths and the J. Z. Smiths often, put on the, I made a joke about Willie Smith and J. Z., and it’s a dated joke.
I was taught, too, that same progression.
Yeah, right. And then you would end in this deconstructive moment, and students would walk out of the class. And they would think, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t know anything. I know less than I went in on.” And they would think actually, “why do we study religion? The whole point of it is to just, you know…” there was a sort of a tonal shift, right? And it would, under the sign of the negative, they would go, “Oh, darn, why did I major in that subject?” Maybe, or, and insofar as I’m a philosopher, I would say, “Oh, if we know less, then we have more questions, we’re gaining knowledge.” But that felt really unsatisfying. The point now is not to cut the deconstructive part, but I actually flip it to the beginning. We now start with the deconstruction. We start with presuming that the category is screwed up. We start with reckoning with its messy colonial legacy. The difference is we just don’t terminate it. So, we then figure out what we can do to make progress. Because, you know, there’s no Archimedean point. There’s no category that is not screwed up. There is no position outside the vast, the current iteration of the world system that has heavily interwoven all these systems of power, etc., etc., etc.
So, and then I have a lot of concrete—and that’s sort of the premise of the book. And then I have many concrete suggestions of what scholarship should look like, having been started from this moment. But you’re right, I think, tonally, that what I don’t like… So, it’s not that I’m saying ‘don’t have the postmodern sounds,’ but start with the postmodern sounds, you know. I’m an old, recovering, well, not recovering, an old goth, or aging goth. And I’m not trying to shift us into positivity in some happy, cheerful way. We have to grant the screwed-upness of that history. We can grant all the things that are messy and complicated. I’m not trying to frame them out. But we don’t end on them.
Well, and that actually makes a huge thing with the Sondheim connection, that—
—that postmodernism can teach us. But at some point, you have to start making something new for yourself. And so I was thinking, reading this about a couple of things, one of which was like The 1619 Project, and how there are some people freaking out at the critique of racism and American institutions and culture. Some people meaning hard right conservatives, who are saying that if we pursue this, you’ll have no American history left. It’ll destroy everything and everything we believe in, which seems it’s a gross—well, it is, it doesn’t seem like—it is a gross caricature. But to me, I even said this to my students last fall, well, why wouldn’t you want to have all these critiques and then factor that in as we start to assemble a new, better, you know, more accurate, hopefully, history of America? I think The 1619 Project ties in here, even though it’s a very different analytical project from what you’re pursuing.
Yeah, exactly. I think if we recognise our tragic past, and the way that that tragic past is impinging on our present moment, that can actually be part of how we can work together to build a better world. So, it’s, we don’t want to ignore the history of slavery and even its legacy. We need more projects that look at all the messiness in our various history. But then also, we need some projects that talk about, now what? How can we work to combat systematic racism in our present moment? You know, what, how can we—certain institutions have failed us, how can we work on building better institutions, etc. And you know, not, and so part of this book is exactly an attempt to make the case for that. So, to make the case for how we might build on the recognition of our problematic pasts as not just the ‘we’ as in the academy, but even ‘we,’ in whatever broad collectivity finds these kinds of projects resonant to try and struggle together to build a better future. And so, a good part of it is that. Exactly, yeah. And it’s not by saying the past never was bad.
Well, and this ties in also to the theme in the book when you talk about—again, I will admit, the hylosemiotic stuff, I didn’t fully understand it. However, what I did understand, you were arguing when you talk about hylosemiotics, you’re talking about seeing human society and all the signs and all the everything we produce is embedded in a larger natural world, right? We’re influenced by animals, we are animals, ourselves, just very highly functioning ones. And I think if you’re, if you’re interested in this theoretical project of using critique to then move on towards building something new, well, this is relevant to climate change, right? Paying attention to the natural world we’re a part of.
You’ve captured—I mean, that is a good part of that chapter. So, yeah, exactly, that I think it’s profoundly relevant to climate change. And in fact, that’s part of why, you know, that chapter is written the way that it is. I mean, often, the problem is, on the one hand, we have these huge, massive things facing us, like anthropogenic climate change, systematic racism, patriarchy, violence, you know, a whole bunch of terrible things, you know, that are large and systematic and hard to grapple with. And our theory has gotten really atomised and really, really, really narrow. And so, in parallel to kind of ethics that tries to put things on the individual consumer rather than addressing systems—it’s like, it’s the reason that oil companies encouraged recycling because they wanted to not worry about their own contributions to polluting the environment. But make all of us worry about our carbon footprint in some minor way, right. So, but if we taboo certain kinds of generalisations, or theorising, we can address these big problems. And part of what I wanted to do in this book also was to make space for that. I can also talk a little bit more about hylosemiotics, if you’d like me to explain that particular, what I’m doing there. But I think you’ve captured why I’m doing, exactly why I wrote that chapter. And its, what its big payoff is, but I can, one of its big payoffs is.
Yeah, I guess. So, semiotics is coming out of modernist era critical theory, the study of signs, symbolism, visual communication, and a good amount of early semiotics came out of the theory of structuralism which, as I understand it is the belief that meaning is arbitrary, but that generally speaking, one word, one signifier will be paired to one meaning and it might be arbitrary how that’s come to be, but generally speaking, things are somewhat stable. Then in the postmodern era, the poststructuralists say, “Well actually a single signifier, a single word can be paired to infinite numbers of meaning, and so it’s very difficult to track any stability in language.” How does your hylosemiotics fit into that, and what does it mean? What does the “hylo” part mean?
Great. So first, the “hylo” is means, matter or material. And so hylosemiotics, in the first case is a materialised semiotics, I can tell you a little bit about why that’s different from new materialism in a minute. But in the first instance, it’s an alternative naturalised material semiotics that explores not only how the world functions in signs—in other words, how material objects function in signs—but also more importantly, how human sign making activities are on a continuum with plant and animal communication. As you’re right, it starts from naturalising semiotics, what if we, one of the things that came out of, let’s say, we could either look at it in Heidegger, or you can look at it in [Ferdinand de] Saussure, is the idea that humans are exiled in a realm of meaning that bracket out the world.
In other words, the Saussurean semiotic dyad—the dyad of the sign, the signifier, and the signified, in Saussure—presume that the thing that composes a sign is a sound, basically, and a mental image. But he wanted to bracket out—this is probably why I always hung up on the word ‘bracket’ but anyway—bracket out the external world. He’s like, “I want to do linguistics. I don’t want to talk about what things were referred to. Let’s just pretend that there’s not a material world out there. And let’s just look at how the system of signs, one sign gets its meaning from its relationship to another sign. And that’s how we build a grammar of general language.” And the poststructuralists showed that that whole system was a mess. As you’re right to observe, it produces these paradoxes around language. Infinitely deferrable meaning, for example, Derrida’s notion of différance, which is a pun on difference, and meaning is infinitely deferred, etc., etc., there are a bunch of critiques.
But what I want to argue is, those were actually reductio absurdum proofs that Saussurean semiotics wasn’t an accurate semiotics. Instead of saying that language is fundamentally impossible to specify meaning, actually, it just shows that Saussure didn’t have the best model for language. We shouldn’t be that surprised because Saussure wrote now over 100 years ago, and linguistics, philosophy of language in other areas has moved on quite a bit. But in many humanities and academic departments, we’re still reading a critique of Saussure as if that’s some kind of fundamental theory about meaning. So, what might it look like to read, theorise meaning from the ground up? And the first thing that you might want to do is not bracket off the idea that meaning of the word have nothing to do with each other.
And you might want to grant, exactly as you were saying, that humans are animals, we’re on a continuum. So, if chimps can communicate, how do they communicate? And I started reading a lot of work in animal studies, and of different sorts, of biology, and ethology, etiology, etc., as well as a lot of philosophy of language, and started really thinking about that issue. And what I came to was a particular theory of meaning. So as a semiotics, it’s a theory of meaning, and we could call it an inferential theory of meaning. There are different ways to talk about that, but basically, I make a distinction between sender-meaning and receiver-meaning, this is something very weird. So I’m initially inspired by people like Charles Sanders Pierce, but I’ve gone in a quite different direction from him and Baltic German animal biologist named Jakob von Uexküll.
But anyway, this difference between sender-meaning and receiver-meaning. Receiver-meaning is inference, what a sign means is what a given sentient being infers, in a given context. The sender-meaning is what the sender wants to be inferred, but those are not the same thing. And we might note that the unit of meaning is materialised signs, not words. And the inference is not absolute, but it’s interpreted relative. So, I’m going to give you some specific examples because that’s pretty abstract. Different people can get different kinds of meaning out of the same tree. I’m looking out my window, and I see that it’s turned its leaves up in a certain way, I might be inferring that it is going to rain. So, I might look out the window and see that tree means it’s going to rain. That tree behaviour means it’s going to rain. Somebody else looking out the window at the same tree might know something more about species of trees than I do. I almost know nothing about species of trees. But they might infer, “Oh, this is a birch. That means that the soil has a certain amount of acidity.” Or they might infer that the way that the light is reflecting off of the tree, it might mean to them that the sun is setting. Those are different kinds of meanings.
They’re a perceptual account of meaning first, so I’m using meaning first to describe perception. But then I want to argue that if you think of human communication, much more like the way that animals communicate, then you see that perception is first and then linguistic meaning is a secondary phenomena from that. So, we read the world in a certain way, we interpret the world in a certain way. And the ways that we interpret the world relate to language, but are not identical. The language, we can use different kinds of vocabularies to talk about the world, they let us focus on different kinds of things, etc. But the meaning is not in the words, but in this kind of complex sign that gets set up. The word ‘tree’ used in different contexts can mean different things. A genealogical tree is a very different thing than a tree outside in the world, right? So that same sound could mean something different. And it’s partially context that helps us differentiate those two usages of the word tree.
But a point that I grant the structuralists—and not because it’s the structuralists who say this or the poststructuralists who say this, but because there’s a lot of evidence from psychology and from linguistics—we actually share less in the usage of our words than you might first anticipate. For example, studies of Princeton undergraduates showed that they disagreed about basic categories in their category hierarchy, like whether hot dogs were sandwiches. I think, I don’t remember the exact study. But something like hot dogs or sandwiches, or whether a scarf as an item of clothing or not, or an accessory.
All that is to say, we don’t actually agree about as much as we might think we have different boundary lines, for example, my wife and I disagree about exactly what counts as blue, a certain shade of blue, for example. But we do have the ability to communicate insofar as the receiver is able to infer the sender-meaning but a receiver can also infer more than I mean to communicate. So, for example, so this is not a reduction of meaning to just what the author wants to say. But in fact, important fact, you can infer a lot more. So, if I say, for example, I don’t know I could say something and you could infer… The way that I’m babbling right now. You could, for instance, and for that I’m tired, I didn’t sleep very well last night, that’s not something I was meaning to communicate. But it’s something you could infer from my style of communication.
So just to summarise, then it seems like in a way, you do come down on the more poststructuralist side of there isn’t necessarily a single referent for every sign. So, like you said, the tree can mean things in different cases. But you are also not going fully down the, as you said, the ad infinitum path of “oh, there’s, there’s no world outside of text” you’re talking about. If we get outside of texts and language, there is still something out there. Even if there were no humans left to describe a rock, the rock is still going to be there.
Yeah, yeah, except the categories that—the rock has multiple categories that it can fit into. So let me give you an example with a with a particular category. Let’s, let’s talk about berries. Okay, let’s talk about berries for a second. I know this is pedantic, but I want to give some specific examples. So, the English word “berry” could capture two overlapping sets. So, in the first instance, we have the word berry to talk about things like blueberries and strawberries, etc. This is the culinary meaning of the category ‘berry’, it captures a property cluster. It includes things that are basically like small and sweet and round, and we put in fruit salads or something like that or are certain kinds of pies. This is the culinary usage of the word ‘berry’.
Okay, and it has different individual speakers that may adjudicate boundary cases differently. We might disagree about certain whether mulberries are berries or not, or something like that. I don’t know if that one really people argue about, but they could. Okay. But there’s also a biological category ‘berry’, that is berries, presumed berries come up from a single flower, the biological category ‘berry’, the thing that anchors berries in their shirt properties, is not that they’re used in the same culinary devices, but how they’re formed in the trajectory of the plant. According to the biological category, cucumbers or berries and, but strawberries or not. Now, I don’t want to say that the biological category is any more ‘real’, but I just want to suggest that those two categories are capturing different property clusters.
So just the words, even though they sound like synonyms, we might, or they might be synonyms. Or they’re two different words that are capturing different kinds of kinds. So, the culinary kind, berry, we could put a number on it called berry one, is a different kind, although it overlaps with culinary kind two, which is berry number two, which is a biological kind. And even the biological kind is going to have grey areas in it. There’ll be debates around, there were debates around I think, whether watermelons counted as berries, because according to the single flower definition, I think watermelons might count, but then they have hard external shells, etc. So, all that is to say, and then… But we get a lot more because we don’t bracket out the world. You’re exactly right. And except the only other pieces that I’m trying to do a meta-ontology, which is to say, I’m not presuming any particular definition of the world and what it contains. I’m not saying that scientific, reductive materialism is exactly right about what the world is.
Rather, what I want to suggest is that, you know, you could be a scientific materialist, you could be a Mormon, you could be a Zoroastrian, it doesn’t really matter as long as the world has some kinds of somewhat stable categories with somewhat stable properties. That’s the only, that’s the minimal nature of you just need a world, you don’t need any specific world. And then this whole theory of language kind of comes out of that. And one of the other things I want to emphasise before we move off of this—and then I know I have a tendency to monologue, that’s another side effect of being tired—is that this has concrete implications for things like translation theory. What I want to say is that people share meaning of the same language less than is presumed. But if we assume that the shared meaning, even within a language, is less than we actually see, that what we can, we actually do share across translation. We see that translation is possible, we see that translation is not one to one words.
To be clear, there are many words that don’t have a clear single analog. Wabi-Sabi, for example, doesn’t have a clear one-word translation in English, but you can write a couple paragraphs that become an applicative translation of the word wabi-sabi. And I say that they provide similar kinds of meaning because according to the theory of meaning I’ve defined, they produce similar kinds of inferences in the person reading that paragraph translation of wabi-sabi. So anyway, that’s an argument for a translation is much more fallible, is much more flawed, it’s often screwed up. But it is, I want to argue possible. And if you grant that that’s possible, that has huge implications, because we’ve been presuming on the grounds of the poststructuralist and also some kind of analytic philosophers like [Willard Van Orman] Quine, that translation is impossible.
For example, the whole idea in philosophy of science that you can’t translate in between paradigms—this is central to Kuhn’s claim of the radical critique of philosophy of science. But there’s an irony in all these arguments about the impossibility of translation that I identify, which is that to make their case, they often present a translation. So, when Kuhn wants to tell you that two paradigms are not commensurable, he compares the two incommensurable paradigms. And there’s a similar argument, if I tell you that you can’t translate the word, you know, when Derrida illustrates the impossibility of the translation of James Joyce’s “he war” into French, he translates that word into French. And now we have a translation of it into English. All that is to say, the more you make your case for the impossibility of translation, you’re actually making my case for the possibility, but flawed nature of translation. It’s just it doesn’t turn out there’s one unique translation, as we were saying earlier, there’s no one way to translate any given text or term.
Well, and then, if I play the part of the poststructuralist beat poet here, when you’re talking about building on from imperfection, I’m suddenly thinking of kintsugi, the Japanese concept of building from imperfection, or I’m also thinking that this project fully undermines Dr. Doolittle, his claim that, you know, why not talk to the animals? Well, no, because you’re assuming that the subcategories are going to mean the same thing to all the animals, so—
Now that I’ve just eradicated part of my father’s childhood pop culture (laughs), as we come to the end of this interview, I do want to read one quote from the book that appears on page 102, that I do think sums a lot of this up. “… the world we study in the human sciences is not jointed. It is not divisible into clearly demarcated kinds. But even so we can still study the social world.” And I think that’s an interesting quote, because it gets to this idea of building onwards without completely rejecting the critiques that make us stop and question the status quo. So, then, I would ask you, the book, in some ways, takes the thesis of, if you want to say, materialism in some respects, and also modernism, even though those aren’t static categories, that has the antithesis of postmodernism, and now you have the Hegelian synthesis of metamodernism—is that what you were going for? Is that an accurate reading of the book?
Well, I don’t think of synthesis. So, that reading of a minute fight in Hegel studies that might only be interesting to a small group of people. [G. W. F.] Hegel didn’t really have ‘thesis’, ‘antithesis’, ‘synthesis’; that’s a second order reading. Hegel had ‘abstraction’, ‘negation’, and ‘negation of the negation’. In Hegel’s Encyclopedia of Logic, that’s how thought is supposed to move. So I would say, only within sub-synthesis, I would say there’s something that, let’s say positivism, postmodernism positioned itself as the negation of modernism or the negation of positivism. And I’m trying to do the negation of the negation of postmodernism, which is, and this doesn’t have—it sounds jargony. But what I mean, it’s kind of more concretely, it’s when, just to get into Hegel. For one second, sorry.
Hegel described the negation of negation as a pivoting or rotating of something on its axis, it’s a granting of the critique in to produce a higher order position. So, I think that it’s controversially in the reading of Hegel, what he had in mind with his negation of negation. But I think it’s, for example, thinking about [Immanuel] Kant’s reaction to [David] Hume. So, for example, Kant describe Hume as having woken him from his dogmatic slumber. What Hume did was had a sceptical critique. What Kant does is he grants that critique but makes the critique itself the foundation of his larger transcendental categories. So, in that respect… But you’re right, that it’s an attempt to work out in through the earlier postmodern and earlier moments, and out the other side. But again, I think it stands on its own case—even my reading of Hegel, even if you don’t like my reading of the postmodernists, I think there’s some concrete reasons why scholars of religion might want to read the monograph, and it tries to solve a whole bunch of our problems.
What do we mean by meaning and translation? What do we do with these categories that we can deconstruct? How should we do comparison? It has a whole new theory, I think, of comparison, how comparison functions, how we should make generalisations, what our theories should look like. And then there’s also a whole ethical part of the project where I talk about the relationship between facts and values. Rather than trying to flush out our norms, I talk about how we might think about how evidence and norms work together or can work in conflict with each other—a whole bunch of things. So, in a way, it’s an attempt to provide scholars in the study of religion and other human sciences or other human and social scientific disciplines, with a set of concrete methods, techniques, and philosophical tools, which should be generative of a whole new kind of scholarship that I think I’m beginning—and I’ve been flattered, I’ve gotten emails that are people who are starting to put this into place, you know, doing work on the categories mysticism, or doing work on the category in Islamic studies, or, or I’ve got my own stuff coming out about categories like religion and science.
All of these are kind of a new kind of work that I think you can begin to do. And it also provides an underpinning or justification for some of the work that’s already going on. So, some work is going to say, “Oh, well, I understand now, what, what moves I was doing in this deconstructive chapter,” but now maybe I can flush it out a little bit better. Or something like that, you know, and it’s good. Yeah. So that’s the kind of thing that I’m imagining with the project as a whole. Yeah, it’s an attempt to it’s something crazy ambitious, I felt really self-conscious, sticking my neck out. But I’ve been really flattered at the positive response that I’ve gotten so far. Although I’m sure you know, I’ll also get into a lot of arguments.
Yeah, well, in closing, too, I’ve just found myself mentally regressing for a moment to my senior year of high school, taking a critical theory, college prep class. And after learning a mash up of modernist and postmodernist critical theory, and then thinking if we critique things I remember saying to my teacher in desperation, well, then it means that there is no meaning. And Mr. McNerney, God love him said, “Now hold on, Dan.” And I feel like your book is sort of the “And now hold on” interjection, and saying that, just because we can and should meditate and be reflective, [it] doesn’t mean we should completely give up on pursuing knowledge. So—
—thank you, Mr. McNerney. Thank you, Jason. And also, thank you to all the editors who helped me prep for this interview, which felt a bit like a graduate hands-on seminar in critical theory.
Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
Storm, Jason Ā. Josephson and Daniel Gorman, Jr. 2022. “Sunday in the Park with Theory”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 18 April 2022. Transcribed by Jacob Noblett. Version 1.0, 18 April 2022. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sunday-in-the-park-with-theory/.
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- The musical excerpt at the beginning of the episode is from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. The song, “Move On”, is performed by Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal (2017 Broadway Cast Recording). ℗ 2017 Arts Music.