For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books — either academic or non-academic — that have been important or influential on us.
2. Name one of your favorite theory books.
While I’m tempted to name one of my favorites by Althusser, Derrida, Foucault, Bourdieu, or Butler, I think I’ll go with Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society. While Elementary Forms seems to be everyone’s favorite in religious studies, I have a strong preference for Division of Labor. In Division of Labor we see the best and worst of Durkheim all at once: sometimes rigorous and sometimes sloppy in his argumentation, he delivers a devastating blow to methodological individualism, he shows how culture is fundamentally related to society or social structure, but — although he frequently departs from the self-serving views of his contemporaries — he speaks freely of “primitive savages” across the globe and ratifies a certain brand of European ethnocentrism. I love teaching Division of Labor because I get to show students a brilliant mind whose views deserve continual consideration yet not always acceptance. Every lecture turns out to be a love letter of sorts to Durkheim, but with a love that resists romaniticizing him and instead loves him despite his flaws.
Plus, I hate methodological individualism, so there’s that. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, with Craig Martin (Part 2)”
For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.
1. Name a book you read early on that shaped the trajectory of your career.
During my senior year of college I picked up a copy of Stanley Fish’s The Trouble with Principle, and it has made an indelible impact on me. In the book, Fish suggests that abstract principles — specifically abstract liberal principles such as “freedom,” “equality,” “inclusion,” “tolerance,” or “neutrality” — are, in and of themselves, vacuous of any particular content and can, in practice, be turned to support just about any social agenda. To use another analytical vocabulary: abstract liberal principles are floating signifiers that, in context, can be fixed to any particular referent, depending on the skill of the rhetorician at work. Fish suggests that liberal proceduralism — the attempt to find and apply non-partisan political principles — is, ultimately, a theoretically bankrupt affair, as abstract principles only begin to take shape when fixed to partisan projects. If it’s politics all the way down, the presentation of one’s own view as above the fray can be reduced to a form of legitimation. That is not to say that what is theoretically bankrupt is not politically useful: in good Nietzschean fashion Fish assumes that partisan contestation is the nature of the game, and that presenting one’s partisan agenda as neutral is a powerful way of winning social and political contests.
While today I find the details of Fish’s analysis weak at a number of points, I nevertheless remain convinced of his argument on the whole. In a field like the study of religion — many corners of which are saturated with liberal rhetoric — I find Fish’s suspicion of liberal discourse continually useful.
“Identifying Identity” offers a series of responses from members of Culture on the Edge to the following claim made by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg:
The End of the (Face)Book and the Beginning of Writing
In Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida deconstructs the metaphysics of presence: differance — nothing in itself — is the constitutive negativity that makes presence possible yet impossible. No thing can ever be present to itself or to another without the insertion of differance, the gap that makes hearing or vision — or any form of knowing — possible in the first place, and that gap makes full presence a priori impossible.
Zuckerberg’s comments on identity strike me as a defense of the metaphysics of presence: the self with integrity — the integral self — must make itself fully present to itself and to others. To hide part of the self is, apparently, to lack integrity. In this Zuckerberg is correct, except that that very lack of integrity is what makes selves possible in the first place; unless we except our selves from our selves, we cannot be present to another at all. Every manifestation of a self on Facebook is always already constituted by differance; every click is a dislocation of unity. The loss of integrity is what makes the self visible. There is nothing outside the text —this process of textuality, iterability, and writing is what weaves selves into existence in the first place (although, for Derrida, this means that there is no “in the first place”). Continue reading “Identifying Identity with Craig Martin”
Following the recent Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby, this image — created by a conservative young woman who wanted to signal defiance to American liberals — received a lot of attention:
One response was to point out that this is little different from other forms of “religious fundamentalism.” The story — posted by a friend of mine on Facebook with the comment “Checkmate” — posted a photo comparison with commentary: Continue reading “Can a State Be Fundamentalist?”
Six years ago I took an academic post at a liberal arts college with a heavy teaching load about 4 hours away from Syracuse, New York, where my wife works as a middle school teacher and where we own a home. Consequently, I commute back and forth every week during the fall and spring semesters. Many of my academic friends and colleagues ask me, “Can’t your wife get a job where you work?,” or “You’ve got a good publication record; why don’t you apply for jobs at more research-oriented universities?” Arguably, there are some latent sexist or patriarchal assumptions underlying these questions.
Presumably as someone who identifies as an academic, I have a career — perhaps even a “vocation” — whereas my wife, a public school teacher, has a mere job. Careers have trajectories and involve planning, nurturing, the accumulation of social capital, networking, and so on. A job by contrast could be picked up or discarded for another job which would be its functional equivalent. Why can’t she just swap jobs so I can pursue my career?
Continue reading “Does My “Wife” Have a “Job”?”
“Who Are You?” is an ongoing series that asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.
What’s at stake in claiming an academic influence or identity, or in asserting another scholar’s influence or identity? I’ve been accused of being a McCutcheonite before. What precisely is at stake in such an accusation? Why is it, for instance, an accusation rather than a form of praise? With this alleged identity claim, what is being accomplished? Continue reading “Who Are You? I am/am not a McCutcheonite”
On the surface, pluralism in the college curriculum seems like an obvious social and political good. Why can’t we all just get along? Well, pluralism suggests that we can, in fact, all get along. Perhaps we can get along once we realize that we are, at bottom, similar in essential ways. On the other hand, where fundamental differences within the group might nevertheless persist, we might attenuate social conflict with a deep, empathetic understanding of others. Thus can pluralism cultivate the virtue of tolerance or even acceptance toward others in modern societies with whom we must work and cooperate. What could be wrong with that? Continue reading “Conceiving the “We” in Pluralism”
George Washington’s Sacred Fire—in which Peter A. Lillback argues that “founding father” George Washington was a Christian and not a deist—garnered a great deal of media attention when first published in 2006. On amazon.com the book currently enjoys 165 user reviews, from readers asserting that the book is “awesome” and “indispencible” [sic] to readers asserting that the book is “illegitimate,” “junk,” and “propaganda.” Why does it matter if George Washington was a deist or a Christian? What’s at stake in the application of one of these two labels onto a figure long dead? Continue reading “The Politics of Choice”
S. Brent Plate’s recent post at Religion Dispatches suggests that when it comes to religious studies, scholars are, in a sense, both insiders and outsiders at the same time. He comes to this conclusion through a comparison of the field of art to the field of religious studies. Iconoclasm in art, he suggests, is actually its own sort of iconification (my horrible word, not his). Artist Ai Weiwei, for instance, photographed himself destroying ancient Chinese artifacts. According to Plate, “iconoclasm is itself an iconic act. One image replaces another. Ai was careful to have his iconoclastic act documented, skillfully shot on camera and reproduced for many to see.” Recently another artist publicly smashed some of Ai’s art in an art gallery, where the act appeared to be partly protest and partly performance art. Iconoclasm is yet again a new iconification. Outsiders who are critical of the tradition are at the same time insiders, extending the tradition in new ways. Plate concludes that, “Tradition is itself a series of creative and destructive acts, stability and instability; the icons are the tradition as much as the images of iconoclasm. Nothing stays the same.” Continue reading “Differentiating Fields”
“Who Are You?” asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.
Identities are weird things. Presumably, telling you my identity lets you draw up associations and predictions about me and my behavior based on that identity, as well as sympathies or antipathies, depending perhaps on whether or not you share the identity at hand. So here goes: I was a Wednesday baby. That’s right—I was born on a Wednesday. Crazy, right? I’m one of them. Continue reading “Who Are You? I’m Wednesday’s Child”