On the Spot with Vaia Touna

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

It all depends on, of course, to whom I’m talking. I admit that in the early years I was feeling quite frustrated explaining that what I was doing is not theology, that I’m not searching whether god exists or not, whether there is paradise, and that finishing my studies I would not become a priest or a nun. Yes, these were/are some of the standards questions I will get and I assume many of my colleagues do. Now, knowing full well that this is the reality and that people in general are likely not to have any knowledge of the Religious Studies discipline, I get less disappointed and in fact sometimes I wonder why should they even know. I certainly don’t know a lot about many disciplines and in fact even though I guard myself against my own misconceptions, it is likely that my own experiences or what ever knowledge I have of a particular discipline inform how I understand them or even misjudge them, so I welcome those misconceptions people have of my own discipline as a challenge. So back to the question, although I don’t have a standard answer that I give to everyone, in general in my reply I would explain that Religious Studies is a discipline within the human sciences and therefore interested in people and their behaviors, with a focus on how people use, talk, define, and understand religion and the consequences those usages, definitions, etc. have for them and the world around them. Then I would go into the more specifics, that is, how my data (the things I’m studying) relate to ancient and modern Greece and that in my research I’m interested in the way both scholars and people define religion (that is, how they understand religion) and how those definitions inform understandings of both the ancient and modern world (I might even give an example or two). If I see interest then I would explain that definitions whether of religion or any other term are one among many acts by which people come to identify themselves and understand, even construct, the world around them. Hashtag REL100. Continue reading “On the Spot with Vaia Touna”

“In Their Own Terms”

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This past semester in my upper level seminar we were discussing anachronistic uses of categories, among which “religion,” in describing and therefore understanding the past and most specifically ancient Greece, reading among other things Brent Nongbri’s book Before Religion. For those not familiar with the book, Nongbri is offering a historical study of the category religion tracing its origins not in the ancient world but in modern Europe; when used to describe ancient practices Nongbri suggests that the term is anachronistically projected backwards in time, urging his readers to be self-aware when they use that word to talk about the past. Continue reading ““In Their Own Terms””

Making Meaning

6d61b38dff59187fb1a03b5c4cdccc0fThis semester I’m teaching a course on the uses of anachronism in the study of the ancient Greek world, one such anachronism being the concept of religion itself (for it is hardly a local term in the ancient Greek world). Last week, just before class, I happened to stumble across an article that made the rounds on Facebook entitled “Mysterious Chimpanzee Behavior May be Evidence of ‘Sacred’ Rituals.” The title of the article was enough to catch my attention: “mysterious” along with “sacred rituals”? Definitely this was something that I could share with my students. Continue reading “Making Meaning”

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 “Now You Have Taken It Too Far”

Maps, Interpretations, and “The Territory”

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Over a year ago I wrote a post, which has haunted me ever since I wrote it; starting with the idea that “every present justifies its presence by clinging onto a past not considered previously,” I looked at two different readings of a fresco in the catacombs of Priscilla, in Rome, and concluded that these two readings of the past each authorize different interests in the present.

Continue reading “Maps, Interpretations, and “The Territory””

Subtle Strategies

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.48.44 AMWhile I was searching the web for tradition-related articles, I came across this news story written by John Laughland (a British civil engineer) who submitted an article to a Greek e-newspaper—“protothemanews.com”—entitled “Kayakoy: Death by Restoration.” The title immediately caught my attention, given my own interest in how we use the term tradition, restorations, and the like. He and his German wife Beatrice have lived in Turkey for the last 26 years near an abandoned village known as Kayakoy, located at the south side of Asia Minor, and it is said that its Greek residents abandoned it after the 1920s population exchange between the two countries (i.e., Turkey and Greece). Continue reading “Subtle Strategies”

How and Why Should You Bring Culture on The Edge in the Classroom

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Pierre Bourdieu, in his 1998 book On Television, wrote: “There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness…Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How to make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see just how extra-ordinary it is?” (21) This is one of my favourite quotes, one that, as a social theorist, drives my teaching approach. Continue reading “How and Why Should You Bring Culture on The Edge in the Classroom”

Frames of Identity Revisited

framingWhile at a workshop in Bethlehem, PA, I stayed at The Historic Bethlehem Hotel, built in early 19th century – a very nice and quaint hotel. On the second day of my stay there I came across a photo shoot in the lobby and as you can see in the picture that I was able to snap, the multiple frames immediately caught my attention and reminded me of a blog I wrote a while back on the use of frames at a museum in Greece – devices that effectively reinforced the nation’s enduring identity. Continue reading “Frames of Identity Revisited”