Cultural Entrepreneurs

Coldplay1Accusations of cultural appropriation have been especially prevalent recently. The depiction of Jeff Bezos as Vishnu on the cover of Fortune magazine elicited complaints from some people who identify with Hinduism, as did the Krewe of Galatea parading their court as Hindu deities during Mardi Gras festivities. The recent Coldplay/Beyoncé music video release “Hymn for the Weekend” also has generated complaints about its depiction of India and the ways some artists profit off of these images.

Images of India have been used for decades, from the 007 film Octopussy to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the complaints that they have spawned have basis in the colonialism and neocolonialism of India and the global inequality that such images — in their construction of India as some place totally different — reinforce. One critique of the Coldplay/Beyoncé music video expressed concern for artists profiting from images of Indians always throwing colors, as if everyday was Holi. However, the author’s own discussion actually suggests one limitation of claims of cultural appropriation. Continue reading

Now You Have Taken It Too Far

herodotusThis semester I’m teaching an introductory course on the Study of Religion, that is, looking at scholarly definitions and scholarly approaches to the study of religion. We’re exploring among other things, together with my students, questions like what is the study of religion? What is at stake in naming/defining/classifying things in this or that way? Although this early in the semester one question that prevails is: Continue reading

Love in a Time of Scholarship

love-hurts

At the most recent American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta, I was appreciative of the NAASR program that asked its participants to think through the place of “theory” in the academic study of religion. You can see the program overview and description here. The NAASR discussion now seems even more relevant in light of the 2016 AAR theme: “Revolutionary Love.” Russell McCutcheon recently wrote a blog post responding to it, wherein he suggested “those members of the AAR, such as myself, who understand the academic study of religion to be something entirely apart from being faithful in the world (whatever that may mean), will surely hesitate, or even balk, when reading this theme.” Continue reading

Tales From the Bottom of the Backpack: What was “The Point” of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

Martin Luther King Dream

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that my children often figure significantly into my posts if only because people in the midst of being socialized are, in my opinion, some of the most interesting people around. This is also why so many of my posts about my kids are often focused on their educational experiences, for while there are a large number of ways in which we are socialized, most of these experiences are rarely as intentional and self-conscious as formal education. (If you’re interested, you can check out  my reflections on their school introduction to Columbus Day and 9/11).

With that said, I recently had an interesting experience that shed some light on the ways that we negotiate our social rituals in order to suit the specific power relationships that such rituals foster. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day occurred a few weeks ago in the U.S., a holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. Many of you, no doubt, saw all sorts of King-related posts on social media, most of them lines extracted from King’s larger speeches and writings, transformed into motivational statements like these: Continue reading

A Rabid Dictionary?

5510506796_dff8c07b64_bAre the accusations of sexism in the dictionary definitions that have moved through social media last week reasonable? While problems in the entries seem clear, the situation is complicated. In case you missed it, Michael Oman-Reagan, a PhD candidate in Canada noted that the Oxford Dictionary presented “rabid feminist” as an example for the entry “rabid,” which he included as one among many examples of “explicitly sexist” entries. The dictionary editors responded that their “example sentences come from real-world use,” but, of course, they chose which everyday example they wanted to enshrine. For a term with a negative connotation like “rabid,” such a choice provides an opportunity to offend someone, making the choice significant. If they had written “rabid NRA member” or “rabid leftist,” different groups might be complaining. Continue reading

The Golden Age

As a college professor I often hear faculty lament the students we have “these days”; there’s a nostalgic decline-and-fall narrative we tell, according to which we’re far removed from the golden age when students were prepared for college and could actually read and write upon arrival. If only we could return to the seventeenth century, when students came to college reading Latin and knowing their Seneca and Cicero!

However, when this narrative is shared (and, to be honest, I’ve told the tale myself), what I hear — what that narrative seems to implicitly suggest — is this: things were better back in the old days, before they let a lot of women and blacks and kids from the working class into college. Continue reading

The Individual as Product and Producer

anthony-giddens

Every research investigation in the social sciences or history is involved in relating action to structure, in tracing, explicitly or otherwise, the conjunction or disjunctions of intended and unintended consequences of activity and how these affect the fate of individuals…. For the permutations of influences are endless, and there is no sense in which structure ‘determines’ action or vice versa. The nature of the constrains to which individuals are subject, the uses to which they put the capacities they have and the forms of knowledgability they display are all themselves manifestly historically variable. (p. 219)

Giddens makes an important point here, one frequently overlooked by scholars who emphasize either agency or structure in their work, and thereby failing to understand the two as heads and tails of the same situated, historical complex. Continue reading

PC Power

7608093198_1fb5281ed3_zBooks can be the best Christmas gifts, at least in my humble opinion. I have already finished one novel that I received for Christmas, Singapore Exile Murders by F. van Wyck Mason. Written, published, and set in 1939, the novel incorporates the responses of Europeans and Americans in southeast Asia to the global events leading up to World War II, making it an intriguing historical artifact based on one person’s imaginings. As a piece of data, the language in the novel surprised me at points, including the off-hand use of terms for African-Americans and Chinese that would be considered offensive today.

Beyond illustrating how what is considered acceptable has shifted in the past 75 years, these problematic terms (by our standards) also illustrate the ways everyday language reinforces, even makes appear normal, social hierarchies. The ways that Europeans and European-American characters use these terms in casual speech places African-Americans (who do not appear as characters in the novel) in the position of menial, hard laborers and Chinese (who are primarily servants, rickshaw pullers, and the like) as clearly inferior. The condescending labels thus socialize people into particular positions of inferiority and superiority by making the hierarchy appear natural, simply the way things are. Continue reading

Global Grover, Meet Edward Said

global-grover

Being the parent of a toddler has introduced me to all sorts of things I’d never have known about otherwise: how many Legos can be stacked before a tower topples, the sound of a stuffed rabbit singing when I accidentally step on it at 2a.m. (yes, I’ve done it more than once, and yes, it’s just as terrifying as you’d expect), the exact amount of time a paper airplane proves entertaining until it just decidedly doesn’t, the glee inspired by dogs and cats yowling “Jingle Bells,” and…most recently, Global Grover.

I don’t have cable, and I’m just fine leaving well enough alone when it comes to the shows my kid doesn’t know he’s missing until such a time as they become unavoidable. But my own generation was raised on TV, and I don’t have an ultra cynical take on it… and I do remember fondly the old standbys, namely Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street. So I just shrug when, despite best efforts, certain things just slip into my child’s consciousness. He’s only just two, and he already sings the melody and words from the Elmo’s World theme song, for crying out loud. Resistance is futile. Continue reading

On the Market, Playing the Game: On Status and Elitism in Academia

Indiana JonesWhile sitting in the lobby of one of the conference hotels during our discipline’s major conference in November, I was joined by a group of post-docs and very early career scholars who were (loudly) discussing their career plans in this tight market. What I caught of their conversation can be summed up as such: We all currently have (or hope to have) tenure track jobs at “teaching schools,” but as soon as we can, we’ll get out of there and move on to the “real” jobs at elite institutions where our research will be valued.

This is a popular sentiment, albeit fantasy for most (in light of the current market). Yet I think it deserves attention, for I believe it to be responsible for some very subtle sorts of power plays that many of us may not recognize as such. For those of you not familiar with the lingo, a “teaching school” is a college or university where greater emphasis is placed on one’s teaching competencies and comparatively less on one’s research, which means that faculty at such schools tend to have larger teaching loads and, typically, less paid time to produce scholarship. The opposite is the case at more elite institutions, where (on the whole) faculty have opportunities to teach less, specifically to give them time to produce the aforementioned research.   Continue reading