“You Will Get Nervous When You Learn…”

I recently watched Ethan Hawke’s foray into documentary filmmaking, Seymour: An Introduction, about the great pianist Seymour Bernstein. While it’s characteristically Ethan Hawke-y in a way that made me think Julie Delphy would show up at any minute to play sounding board to Hawke’s musings, and while there’s a bit with a career-mystic that I could do without, I was charmed by Bernstein’s soft-spoken enthusiasm. There are also a few terrific stories along the way. Like this one:

This idea of getting more nervous as one grows in sophistication and talent got me thinking about the respective confidence or jitters with which we approach our profession as scholars.

As someone who identifies as “interdisciplinary” (at times begrudgingly, given the seeming inverse relationship between the term’s frequent usage and its substance), I have the pleasure of knowing and working with colleagues across a few different fields. I also have the opportunity to sneak a peak at what kinds of interests, anxieties, and assumptions animate various disciplinary affiliations. Having recently returned from a conference for scholars in southern studies (one of the elements in my own academic armature), I was reminded of one of the primary differences that I have long seen between that subfield and the discipline of religious studies, where I hold my own faculty position and research affiliation. And keeping in mind what J. Z. Smith emphasizes in Drudgery Divine, among other works—namely, that comparisons and contrasts have little to do with the obvious states of what get compared and far more to do with those doing the comparing—I’ll admit from the outset that the difference I see does not reflect the state of this or that field so much as the state of my own questions about, frustrations with, and hopes for it.

What specifically interests me is the degree to which a term or category gets taken for granted in its study—how casually and confidently scholars treat a term based on their own proximity to it. Among scholars who are interested in something called “the South” as a staging ground for various modes of production (literary, economic, or otherwise), one won’t get very far by assuming a stable regional or cultural referent for the phrase. Indeed, most who find their way into this subfield give a sideways glance at the term, looking instead at how “the South” suits a host of different, often competing, motivations in relation to other complex notions like memory, modernity, and globalization. In this way, the South is a proxy for larger analytical questions. I’m not suggesting that conservative or traditional approaches do not appear with their own brands of nostalgia in the field. They do. By and large, however, scholars are not at all able to assume some kind of natural importance of their area of study. They must instead grapple with what Tara McPherson has called in Reconstructing Dixie the region’s “cultural schizophrenia” that simultaneously evokes trauma and nostalgia.

Within religious studies, I often confront the question of what I really study since “religion” is not a term to which I necessarily devote a great deal of time. In these exchanges, I tend to start talking about the general anxiety that I have in relation to the category and the ease with which many people—both popularly and scholastically—bandy it about. As I see it, discussing religion as a rhetorical tool is a way in to talking about structural dynamics of power, ethnicity, neoliberalism, and nation. However, the field is, to my mind, dominated by an overconfident impulse to take for granted the importance of something called religion. Or, if we don’t presume the need necessarily to share the same definition, we can at least all presumably agree that it is an important concept to define in the first place. My own sense is that scholars in the field would do well to entertain a more fraught relationship to our object of study. In keeping with Bernstein’s story about Sarah Bernhardt’s trembling hand, we should be a little more nervous. It would make for a more careful approach to our discipline and to our craft.

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