“New Books on the Edge” with Russell T. McCutcheon

Entanglements Marking Place in the Field of Religion by Russell T. McCutcheonEntanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion

You’ve contributed much to the discourse on theory and method in the academic study of religion over the years – can you take us behind the scenes with “why” this book now, and to what sorts of questions and/or critiques in the field you’re responding to in your push to show the manner in which the “academic” study of religion rightfully constitutes primary research on “real” religions?

For whatever reason, over the years some of my work has prompted replies from other scholars—sometimes substantive, sometimes dismissive or, on occasion, even angry. So I’ve had the luxury of writing responses or rejoinders on a number of occasions, but I’ve never done anything with these pieces—not that I ought to, but they tend to represent a part of the field that, I think, often goes unnoticed. For a variety of reasons I’ve turned into an essayist and I tend to gather up pieces periodically and then publish them as a collection—a genre I certainly didn’t invent and one that is not so distinct from a monograph as some might wish to think—and so the idea of collecting these responses, and then writing new introductions to each, contextualizing the occasion etc., seeing it all as an example of scholarly discourse at work, rather than a finished product, occurred to me about a year or so ago. Something like how we stopped putting “Under Construction” graphics on web pages long ago, since, by definition, the web is always under construction, making them either redundant or driven by the mistaken assumption that we’ll one day complete the internet. So too with research—it’s never done, but books, essays, etc., often lend the impression of completion. But a collection of responses…, which point to absent texts that came before and then after them (like all texts do, if we’re honest about it), now that would be interesting, something a little different….

So although I’d been bouncing the idea around a bit, what made it all coalesce was hearing, sometime around the Chicago meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2012, that earlier career scholars whom I knew felt that their interest in the politics of category formation (you know, like calling waterboarding “torture” when “they” do it but “enhanced interrogation techniques” when “we” do or, to pick a somewhat softer example, when this is a “habit” and that is a “ritual”) was being dismissed by some of their colleagues by being portrayed as either derivative or something other than real scholarship. Seeing these familiar rhetorics used to marginalize (I wouldn’t even say “critique” for this is not a form of criticism, to me, for that requires argumentation, persuasion, and evidence) their work prompted me to get writing, specifically doing so with early career readers in mind, to make sure they knew that they weren’t inventing the wheel when it came time to reply to such accusations, and so to provide them with a bit of a crash course in the dialectics and rhetorics of an academic discipline. After all, all those critiques of each other amount to the routine back-and forth of scholarship, resulting in lines on CVs that we all report annually as part of our research productivity—controversy is thus good for business.

What comprises your “data” in this work and what did you find – what’s “..still at stake in the academic study of religion?”

 The objects I’m looking at are two-fold, I guess: scholarly representations of the world are one set of items I’m looking at, and then yet other items in the world that I can represent in an alternative fashion, to demonstrate a gap between these two sets of representations, showing that the portraits of other scholars are not necessary, innocent, and thus “could be otherwise.” My hope is that shedding light on this gap is just a little empowering to early career people who, though they may not yet know how they wish to go about doing their work, at least know they’re not satisfied with the options already on the table; so they can at least see an alternative model (whether they agree with it or not) of how things could be done differently (such as my interest in “religion” and not religion, “myth” and not myth, identification and not identity, etc.). So, like many of my other writings, the pieces in this book are largely concerned with the politics of representation as they work themselves out in this one academic field where I happen to do my work.

As for what’s at stake still in the academic study of religion, I think they’re all the same old issues as before—how we define our object of study, how we think it is or is not related to other mundane elements of the human, how we do or do not value the claims of those who participate in the groups we may be studying, etc. At a few points in this book, but also in a separate set of my uncollected essays coming out later this year with Brill (a couple of which are unpublished), entitled A Modest Proposal on Method: Essaying the Study of Religion, I discuss the current interest in studying material religion, embodied religion, lived religion, and argue that it really is nothing more than a rebranded form of phenomenology of religion and hermeneutics—after all, what is it that’s being put into the body (i.e., em-body)? That is, given the strong critiques that some scholars have leveled over the past few generations, those of our colleagues who remain unpersuaded, those who are more philosophically idealist in their tastes, have regrouped and smartly advanced what sounds to be a rigorously empirical pursuit—as I say in the book, what’s more material than material religion?! But if you read them carefully I think you’ll find that it really is a very familiar approach that carries with it all the same old problems—the intangible manifested in the tangible, the latter of which is studied to discern the deeply meaningful outlines of the elusive former. Sure, we call “it” meaning or the human spirit now, instead of Geist or the sacred, but a rose by any other name… So it strikes me that what’s still at stake is what has always been at stake: what we mean by the past, what we mean by evidence, what we mean by empirical, etc.—all the same old issues that we’ve been discussing for the past few generations.

By the way, I don’t want this to sound like I’m saying that we haven’t made any progress—that the old was rebranded as if it was new shows evidence of considerable progress for those interested in rethinking the way the study of religion is carried out. But it is evidence of just how entrenched the interests are that authorize themselves by means of reference to things like totality, transcendence, meaning, faith, experience, belief, intention, etc. For if I’m right—if these rhetorics are linked to how we reproduce and legitimize specific ways of organizing ourselves socially—then we should expect to see them continually reappearing, being reasserted in new terms, inasmuch as those social organizations from which they originate and which they support (e.g., the liberal democratic nation-state that is so dependent on the construction of religion as something unique and special) continue to reproduce themselves.

I love the title of your introduction in this text – “Apologia for an Obsession” – what are you getting at with this type of framing? How does this opening conceptually/theoretically frame the volume and what follows in the subsequent sections and essays?

The title refers to a moment at a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar that I attended as a guest a couple years ago, at the University of Virginia (they’re offering it again this year but I don’t know if they’re including my work on their reading list again). As I phrase it in the Introduction:

Having read some of my work as part of their workshop, as an example of a certain critique of the field, I was kindly invited to join the group on Thomas Jefferson’s campus, in Charlottesville, for a day’s worth of discussion. It was clear that a variety of the participants found my focus on category formation to be somewhat frustrating—likely wanting to just get on with the real work of studying religious people because, apparently, we all just know that there is something distinct in the world called religion, or spirituality, or belief, or whatever else one calls this “it.” That such scholars cannot understand their own in-group to be no less interesting than any other group of human beings, all of whom are presumably engaged in meaning/identity-making through category formation and use, is fairly easy to understand—after all, who among us wants to give up our taken-for-granted subjectivity, presumed autonomy, and thus our first person interpretive authority over self-representations and understandings (e.g., the ability to say “When I say this I mean that…” and not be questioned on it), only to become someone else’s object of study?  One rather early career participant in the seminar, seated at the far end of the room, and trained in anthropology (but, as it turned out, no less resistant than many others are to using ethnography to study scholars themselves), surfed the web on a laptop while the discussion went on; it soon turned out that she had found my c.v. online and was looking it over, for she exclaimed (the correct word to characterize her behavior, I would say), “You’re obsessed with the category ‘religion’!” The verb was key, I think, for—at least as I heard it—it connoted illegitimacy and a troubling, almost clinically diagnosable, preoccupation that required explanation and, in fact, justification on my part. My reply to what I heard as a direct challenge to the legitimacy of my work was simple and forthright: “In other fields we call that expertise.” My point was to try to prompt this young scholar to consider why she would never even consider saying that to a scholar who spent his or her professional life studying, say, the bacterial flagellum in Biology or the Q document in Christian origins or whatever it was that she had written her dissertation on. For I know plenty of people who spend their entire careers studying very specific things—such as a colleague who has been writing on Eliade’s life and work for twenty years and is therefore considered an authority on the Historian of Religions—and they are called specialists and are never accused of being “obsessed” with this or that object.

The Introduction then outlines several other situations like that, which have taken place over the years—like when a professor once told grad students, while I was visiting a campus, that my interests were passé—in which issues of (il)legitimacy and identity were very much in play when someone interacted with me professionally, whether in person or in writing, moments when my interest to study the discourse on religion itself seems to have prompted my interlocutor to become surprisingly defensive. But it indicates to me just how flimsy the discourse on religion really is, if it has to be defended in this manner, since the sort of work I do is also carried out by very few other people, and so you’d think that a field of who knows how many thousands of scholars could tolerate just a handful who study them as well. But social formations are more fragile than they appear, of course, and the discourse on religion is no different.

So the introduction frames the book’s chapters by trying to describe for a reader what they may be up against if they opt to talk about religion in a way that not only makes religion “human, all too human,” but, more than this, also if it commits the sin of failing to assume that religion is something that ought to be distinguished from other elements of the human, as some special, separate, unique, domain that requires specific theories either to understand or explain it.

How did you go about choosing the essays for which you’d reflect with new substantive introductions? How did you go about organizing this volume – what can readers expect to encounter here?

I decided to go with a chronological order for a specific reason (the opening chapter in this collection was first published in 1990 and the last in 2013). As I make plain in the book, I sometimes sense a little let down when I come to campus to give a public lecture, since there’s a relatively good chance that people there are familiar with my first book, Manufacturing Religion (1997) and that’s what they expect to hear. Given that it was a revised version of my dissertation, and that I, like everyone else that I know, am not lodged in amber, it’s likely that I don’t necessarily agree with (or even recall!) everything in that book today. While I’m not trying to distance myself from my earlier work it is this assumption of authorial continuity across books and time that strikes me as interesting. I’m hardly the first to focus on this, of course, and many of us know that “the author is dead,” but arranging the chapters chronologically hopefully has the advantage of demonstrating that my voice today is not in sync with that of my much younger self who wrote some of those early chapters. In fact, the two first chapters alone make this abundantly evident inasmuch as the second makes data of the first’s interest in objectivity.

And thus it is this problem of the self, of subjectivity, of authorial continuity that I hope readers mull over if they read the book; for if so, then the new material in each chapter’s introduction—all obviously with the benefit of hindsight—might become far more interesting than the main chapter for, somewhat akin to the way that a preface functions (though coming first it is often the last things you write), they’re doing considerable work in the present to portray that artifact from 1990 in a particular way—in a way that its author (a doctoral student in Toronto, five years away from graduation and three years away from his first full-time job) surely never imagined when it was first written.

As for selecting the main chapters, there’s a variety of other things I’ve written that were replies that I’ve not included—I tried to select those that best exemplified issues that I now think worth highlighting. Some of those replies that I’ve not included turned into such substantive essays in their own right that they were included in books I published some years ago, making them appear not as replies so much as essays in their own right, I guess. (This illustrates, I hope, that all claims are replies to yet other claims, their value and their meaning thus infinitely deferred, as Derrida argued long before me. So the distinction between a “chapter” in a stand-alone monograph and an “essay” in a seemingly disparate collection is, at the end of the day, highly suspicious to me—it is useful inasmuch as it serves the interests of some to distinguish their work as authoritative when compared to others—a utility that needs examining, I think.)

Case in point: a long essay first published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion tackled the work of Bob Orsi. That essay resulted from my frustration over how my work was portrayed by him in his review of one of my earlier essay collections (The Discipline of Religion [2003]); but the shorter piece that functioned as my first foray into that eventual essay is included as a chapter in Entanglements (while the essay on Orsi’s work, with an introduction by Craig Martin, is included in a chapter of a book that Culture on the Edge has coming out in 2015—one that you’re editing Monica!). What I hope readers thus encounter here is the ongoing nature of scholarship as work continually in progress.

I really like how you’ve classified your work here as an “ethnography of scholarly practice” – can you tell us what you’re getting after here?

That’s a specific reply to those who claim that I have no real data and don’t do any real scholarship, inasmuch as I don’t have an accepted body of literature to study. But I try to turn that on its head and argue that I’ve so far spent over twenty years doing fieldwork—for unlike those who go the field for a period of time and then return home to write up their results, I actually live and work among the group I study, publishing in their journals. So if participant observation is a legitimate method when we study “them” then I don’t see why it is any less significant when it is used to study “us,” for we’re people too, involved in complex historical, social, and political situations, using a variety of tools at hand to compete, negotiate, rank, placate, etc. So, as I’ve argued before, the book tries to invite readers to take seriously just how terribly interesting scholars are and how their work is interwoven with a series of practical issues no less significant than any other group we may choose to live among and study.

As an early career scholar myself, I’ve greatly benefited from the work you’ve contributed over the years to the academic study of religion. As you know, your work on theory and method has been exceptionally formative for my own work. I find it quite odd and strange when I come across critiques of your work as somehow trying to destroy the category/study of religion. As I see it, your work in pushing for a critical analysis and approach has helped to keep the study of religion alive and well, so to speak. I’ve seen over the years how emerging and early career scholars seem to be engaging in a robust dialogue with your scholarship. How do you imagine early career scholars engaging and using this work?

I’m pleased you’ve found it useful—I think of Foucault here, who once observed that he writes for users, not readers. I like that distinction. So as I said above, I’m hoping they think about some of the implications of their work before they stick their neck out too far. My career is hardly a cautionary tale, however, so I don’t mean that; if anything, I’ve been incredibly lucky and am always amazed anyone reads me at all. But if you do read—err, correction, use—the book, and if you’re in a vulnerable position as a scholar (non-tenured, an Instructor, a grad student, etc.), and if you’re dissatisfied with the manner in which the field is shaped, then I hope readers will think about whether there are better and worse ways to proceed, what their goals are, what choices could go one way rather than another, and the chess moves that will likely be played against you as you try to make the revisions that will help you be more engaged in your work, your studies, your teaching.

Too often these days, it seems to me that earlier career people don’t recognize the amount of agency that they do in fact have—better put, they seem willing to relinquish it, even if is just a little, instead of trying to grab it, assert it, leverage it with like-minded others, even if it seems to have little consequence. I see in this a failure to understand structures as nothing more or less than the non-intentional sum total of the wishes of vast numbers of (often conflicting) agents, many of whom didn’t know each other and never even crossed paths—but their interests had effect, slight maybe, but compounded with others they turned into grammar, economic systems, nation-states, etc. That is, we shouldn’t take structure for granted but, instead, take seriously its agential basis (and vice versa, of course). Now I don’t want to seem naïve and settle on some sort of can-do spirit in which everything will somehow work out for the best if you just wish it hard enough. No, not at all; but I do wish to suggest that strategic agents try to identify social domains in which they can have effect and they work toward realizing some sort of change there. Maybe it’s the way you tweak a world religions class syllabus, if you’re dissatisfied with that genre, or maybe it’s a reply that you write to a published article that you just send off to the journal in hopes that they’ll publish it—maybe its just a letter to a book review editor suggesting some books for review that you’re already using for a dissertation. While a lone person’s agency can’t change the world, of course, it does have effect if that social actor is tactical about where they act and how. For instance, my work rests on the work of a relatively small group of theorists in our field, who were dissatisfied with how we all went about our work, and from that we all now seem to be talking about “method and theory,” though doing so in many different, often defanged, ways. So it’s clear that while there’s been an effect there’s also been a rear guard response. But that’s social formation, no? The tug and pull never ends. We’re all tangled.

So I guess my hope is that people indeed find the collection useful—for what use, I have no idea. That’s up to them.


“New Books on the Edge” is an ongoing blog series, which engages forthcoming manuscripts by Edge collective members.

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