At the most recent American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta, I was appreciative of the NAASR program that asked its participants to think through the place of “theory” in the academic study of religion. You can see the program overview and description here. The NAASR discussion now seems even more relevant in light of the 2016 AAR theme: “Revolutionary Love.” Russell McCutcheon recently wrote a blog post responding to it, wherein he suggested “those members of the AAR, such as myself, who understand the academic study of religion to be something entirely apart from being faithful in the world (whatever that may mean), will surely hesitate, or even balk, when reading this theme.”
Included in the incoming president’s description of the meeting’s theme this year is the following pseudo-definition: “I use the word ‘love’ in the broadest possible sense, including love as a social and political force, a structural reality, a collective endeavor, a shared social practice, a language, a relationship, a moment, a gesture, an identity, a quest.” Troublesome as it may be to those of us interested in identifying a way ahead for critical theory in studies of religion (no matter how much any of us might dig Led Zeppelin), talk of love and relationships is not a particularly new feature in scholarship at large, let alone the AAR.
At the 2015 meeting, I attended a panel devoted (in both topic and sentiment) to Albert Raboteau’s now classic Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (1978). My second monograph project deals with the concept of slave religion as a category that emerged on the heels of institutional wrangling over how and why to build Black Studies programs (for one really good example, see the volume Black Studies in the University: A Symposium, which transcribes the discussion around the formation of Yale’s program). The scholarly interest in tracing the origins of the Black Church and promoting a decidedly theological investment in the subject matter perhaps makes sense in the specific political and intellectual context of the 60s and 70s. That the spate of texts on the topic during those decades continues to serve as an informing antecedent to the work by scholars on the subject today, however — especially after the turns that have been taken in identity studies on the tricky concept of “experience” — is what I find most curious. So, it was with great interest that I attended the panel of relatively young (though established) scholars commemorating Raboteau’s text.
While there is much to say about the theme that marked each presentation — namely, praise for what they all read as the recuperation of a Black subject and a serious consideration of the “inner lives” of slaves — what really struck me was Raboteau’s own closing pronouncement. The essential task of scholarship, he suggested, is “to fall in love with the people” about whom one writes. Only by doing so are scholars able to efface themselves so that the groups they study may stand forward. Once again, the popular Atticus Finch brand of liberalism via personal relationships rather than thoroughgoing structural critique had reared its head in an academic context.
I immediately thought of another classic scholarly discussion about race and identity, this one from 1987, concerning the role of theory in African American literary criticism. The heated exchange between Joyce A. Joyce, Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in New Literary History revolved around what Joyce considered to be the problematic infiltration of poststructuralism (as evinced by the work of Baker and Gates) in African American literary studies. Condemning it as elitist and off-putting (to state it mildly), Joyce suggests the following in “The Black Canon”:
Rather than being a “linguistic event” or a complex network of linguistic systems that embody the union of the signified and the signifier independent of phenomenal reality, Black creative art is an act of love which attempts to destroy estrangement and elitism by demonstrating a strong fondness or enthusiasm for freedom and an affectionate concern for the lives of people, especially Black people.
This very quote serves as one of the epigraphs for Gates’s response. The other he uses? Why, Tina Turner lyrics, of course. I’ve got my own critiques of Gates’s work (for different reasons than Joyce’s, to be sure), but in this case, I do think the question he poses to Joyce in the title of his response essay is exactly on point: “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” It is the same question I would ask in response to Raboteau’s remarks, which, to my mind, are illustrative of a much broader trend in scholarship on race and religion. It is also the question I would put to the new president of the AAR concerning the 2016 association theme.
Even if one were to grant the premise of a mode of scholarship that attempts to invest itself with the same interests as those of its dataset, I’d still think a more productive approach to such scholarship would be what Houston Baker describes in one of his own responses to the 1987 debate, “In Dubious Battle.” At the end of his brief essay, he suggests in his characteristic flair:
Indeed, the towers of an old mastery are more resonantly toppled by a poststructuralist critique — which discounts notions of God, Self, History, and the Book in the service of a new interpretive economy — than by any other operative intellectual position (in the 1980s) that I can readily call to mind. It seems to me that a reading and appropriation of the efforts in philosophy, political economy, psychology, and popular culture of poststructuralist thinkers such as Derrida, Althusser, Lacan, and Baudrillard could well lead one to hear the sound of poststructuralism as a note in clear harmony with, say, the freedom cries of millions of blacks in South Africa bent on a new and revolutionary existence… Frankly, I believe the sound is worth hearing. It has been, and will continue to be … the political and academic heralding note of a new and liberating future.
Critical theory surely has devastating implications for logic structures that would reductively — often fatally — ascribe an essence to something called “race.” But that fact is too often forgotten, it seems, even now in this academy wherein talk of “critical theory” proliferates but wherein its implications are curiously absent. Scholars thus do themselves (not to mention the publics they study, if taking many stated motivations into account) no favors by simply pointing to a different “phenomenal reality” (to use Joyce’s phrase), professing their love for it, and calling that progressive academic work. What we are left with, in that case, are dueling essentialisms in the service of respective passions. And that’s a whole lotta love that race studies could do without.
Or, to keep with the music theme…