On the weekend a Facebook friend posted a link to an interesting blog post on contests over modern Jewish identity. It opened as follows:
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995).
A practical series of case studies (e.g., the Hatian Revolution) by the late (d. 2012) University of Chicago Professor of Anthropology/Social Sciences on how discourses on the past are not about recovering or remembering enduring items from history so much as deploying techniques in the present continually to limit what in the archives will count as the past. As such, how does one write a history of the forgotten, “a history of the impossible”–a genealogy of the choices that led to this or that narrative of “the past.”
So writes Jonathan Z. Smith in his article, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Mark Taylor’s well-known edited book, Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998). Because most scholars presume (mistakenly, I think) religion to exist prior to, and outside of, their studies of it, few understand their definitions to be stipulative–specifying the limits of the object in advance, e.g., “For the purposes of this study, religion is defined as…” Instead, definitions are most often assumed merely to describe, after careful observation, the limits of an already established item in the world that we, as scholars, have somehow just stumbled upon. Continue reading “The Yoga of Definition”