On one humid, overcast summer day, an unpredictable ethnographic experience got me thinking about urban myth-making, sanctioned versus unsanctioned narratives, and contested public space.
The incident occurred as follows.
Among a group of architectural tourists on Columbus’s Avenue of the Architects, I observed as our tour guide — who I’ll call Eric — detailed I.M. Pei’s design methods for the plaza. Eric was a walking encyclopedia of architectural data, dropping design concepts such as subtractive architecture and coffering. He pointed out how the various architects who contributed to the environs aimed for a loose structural consonance. “Look how that walkway lines up, visually, with the clock tower,” he encouraged. He signaled toward the parallels between the texture of the underside of the library’s flat roof and the honeycomb pattern on nearby plaza benches.
We walked slowly toward the plaza’s center, trailing behind Eric as he approached the sculpture backwards, gesturing this way and that, deeply engaged in tour guide rhetoric. As we neared the foot of avant-garde sculptor Henry Moore’s Large Arch at the center of the plaza, an unexpected interruption resulted in a moment of awkward pause. A middle-aged man to our left, slightly unkempt and with cigarette in hand, interjected into Eric’s official soliloquy. “It’s Godzilla’s leg-bone, man!” he exclaimed, stepping forward from where he had been leaning against the red-brown brick of Pei’s library façade. Face bright with the attention he drew, from a distance this temporarily emboldened, unsanctioned guide traced the contours of the bronzed form with an outstretched finger. Continue reading “Moore’s Large Arch is Godzilla’s Leg-Bone”
On Wednesday October 18, Québec passed a controversial new law that bans residents from wearing face coverings while providing or receiving government services — including public transportation. Neutrality has become one of the key talking points since the law was enacted. While the law itself is framed as “an act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality,” Québec Premier Philippe Couillard and Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée have both defended the law against accusations of religious discrimination by emphasising that the law bans all face coverings, and not only religious ones. These assertions of neutrality are, however, more complicated than they at first appear.
While many Québec residents are outraged at the anti-Muslim implications of the new law, I want to consider how this law neutralizes some apparently religious expressions while prohibiting others along with the rhetorical strategies the government has employed to solidify its apparently neutral stance. Continue reading “Creating Neutrality”
The vision of white racial purity that drove the Nazi regime to perpetrate genocide in the mid-twentieth century has persisted into the present, most recently made visible by American white supremacist groups. The idea that bodies not only represented but also manifested an essential cultural supremacy may seem to be an outdated and backward view of the world. And yet, a recent surge in popular interest in ancestry and DNA may reveal the ways in which biological essentialism continues to inform popular American notions of identity.
As returning readers may already know, Culture on the Edge’s first chapter started in the Spring of 2012, when seven scholars of religion decided to work together on a common project devoted to studying identities — how they’re made and negotiated. Our blog began a year later, as a public place where we could experiment with the ideas on which we were working, trying to find discrete (and usually overlooked) examples where the work of social formation could be seen, if we just looked at them in a new way. The many posts that resulted (Chapter 1 on the menu bar) were meant to be pithy and written for a wide readership, modeling what a scholar of religion who reads across disciplines might contribute to understanding society at large. And then, about a year ago, we invented our second phase, encouraging other scholars to use the blog as a site to continue to advance the analysis of how social life works; Chapter 2 is therefore a portal for peer review posts, inviting submissions that, in the voices of new authors, press in new directions the insights on identification practices that we’ve been exploring all along. Continue reading “Developments at the Edge”
When I read the glowing New York Times review of the recent movie Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017) by the Israeli-American director Joseph Cedar, I was intrigued about what A.O. Scott reported as “one of Mr. Cedar’s slyest conceptual jokes,” or the director’s deliberate decision to cast all non-Jews in the roles of the New York Jews who make connections between rich Jews and Israeli politicians. Scott neglects to explain what is clever or funny about the casting choice, though he does list some of the dangers that could have emerged from this choice: “obnoxiously shticky performances; sentimental tribalism; easy moral point-scoring,” and then immediately declares that “None materialize.” The potential problem of the casting choice appears briefly only to be immediately negated, and so disappears as a problem. When I thought of the casting choice I was led to ask a question that nagged me before I saw the film: “What does it mean for a non-Jew to ‘act’ like a New York Jew?” In other words, how was it possible to give direction to the non-Jews about how to ‘appear’ Jewish in stereotypically ‘Jewish’ roles as New York shysters, without inadvertently reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes? In most of the positive reviews of the film, this problem did not appear as a problem because the movie was described as a satire. Continue reading “Were We ‘Bamboozled’ by “Norman”?”
“I wish I had Down syndrome.” These words were spoken by a student in a functional skills special education (SPED) classroom that I work in during the day. The student was speaking with another student who has Down syndrome (DS). Like many graduate students, I work multiple jobs while being in school. Claims of the disconnected ivory tower sometimes seem lost on me. In multiple instances, my research on the role of classification in society (regarding discourses of nature, religion, human-being, etc.) and my experiences in the workplace shape one another.
A decade ago, I was driving with my family on a highway in Tennessee when our windshield was hit by a stone. My focus soon shifted from the fresh crack in the glass to the signs on the back of each vehicle in a convoy of gravel trucks reading: “Stay Back 300 Feet: Not Responsible for Broken Windshields.”
Furious, I wailed, “How is it possible that they’re not responsible?!” I searched the trucks for a telephone number as I passed, to no avail. Reaching for an (absurd) analogy, I yelled, “What’s next? Serial killers wearing t-shirts saying ‘not responsible for accumulating corpses’?” I was quite proud of the analogy, but my family was more concerned about my rage than the $200 it would eventually cost to replace the windshield.
I thought about that windshield this fall when a former student shared an invitation she received from the Governor of Missouri to “The Thirtieth Annual Governor’s Student Leadership Forum: Faith and Values in Leadership.” Only the top students in the state receive the invitation, so she was rightly honored to have been selected. A description of the three-day event in Jefferson City was enclosed. It explained: “Each January, student leaders across the state gather with leaders in politics and business to discuss the servant leadership philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth . . . . The forum is not religious. We seek participants of all faiths . . . .” The forum is subsidized by the annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. Selected students pay a fee of $350 to attend, and no tax dollars directly fund the forum. Continue reading “Inertia, Broken Windshields, and the Boundaries of “Religion””
Poutine, a delicious mess of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy, has recently been described as Canada’s national dish. Given poutine’s origins in rural Québec, these claims shed light on the tensions at play in the ongoing construction of Canadian identity.
Poutine’s status as Canada’s national delicacy remains unofficial despite a recent campaign to give poutine the national recognition it deserves.
On January 27, 2017, the Trump White House issued, like many administrations before it, a statement on the Nazi genocide in remembrance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. What was striking about this statement, however, was that it failed to mention the Jews. Trump’s statement merely noted that: “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.” The problem is that this is exactly how those who deny or minimize the Nazi genocide talk about the event (as Senator Tim Kaine noted, Richard Spencer confirmed, and as a cursory glance at white supremacist forums will show). The White House, however, doubled down when the administration’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, claimed that the statement was intentional and that, “despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Similarly, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus remarked that, “everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust” (adding, “obviously all of the Jewish people”).
There are a lot of questions here. As Josh Marshall suggests, wouldn’t it have been wiser—if indeed that was the goal—instead to mention all of the groups you had in mind? How will this affect the relationship between conservative Jews and Trump, especially when that relationship is often based on a shared support for Israel that seems, mistakenly, also to signal support for Jews? How will such Jews weigh the importance of Israel in relation to the importance of acknowledging the Nazi genocide? As Jordan Weissman points out, the White House seems to have “all lives mattered” the Nazi genocide. Continue reading “Holocaust Statements and Identity in/of/for the World”
The framing of tragedies by government officials and state actors in the USA and Canada this past week raise questions regarding the boundaries around “victims” and related categories – “perpetrators” or often in modern times, “terrorists” – and how such shifting boundaries are constructed and contested through strategies of naming and erasing. Continue reading “Naming and Erasing”