Changing Symbols and the Swastika

Chilocco Indian Agricultural School basketball team 1908-09

Symbols serve as a significant way to express identity within society. Crosses generally identify someone as a Christian, a hammer and sickle as a communist, and black and white houndstooth as a University of Alabama fan. Of course, that simple equation provides an arena for significant competition about exactly which symbol represents which ideas. The apparent incongruency of Native Americans wearing swastikas on their basketball uniforms (Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma, 1908) derives from the assumption that symbols have a defined meaning. As with identity labels generally, the meanings of symbols like the swastika shift over time, and seldom does a symbol have only one meaning.

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Blurred Boundaries

clintonobamaIn preparation for the first meeting of Culture on the Edge, at the University of Alabama, the group looked at some resources that purport to study identity in a more dynamic, theoretically-engaged way–e.g., works devoted to studies of diaspora, hybridity, syncretism, etc.–in hopes of finding models for how to study the production and movement of identity but without (unintentionally, perhaps) reproducing the very thing one means to study. Continue reading “Blurred Boundaries”

Writing a History of Origins

As part of an event marking the contributions to the study of religion made by (the now late) Wilfred Cantwell Smith, held at the University of Toronto in the Spring of 1992, Jonathan Z. Smith presented a paper entitled “Scriptures and Histories.” Soon published in a special issue of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (and recently included as chapter 3 of Smith’s On Teaching Religion), it deftly picks up on themes in the former Smith’s work but expands on them considerably since, as the latter Smith writes near the opening of his essay: “We share last names, but not much else.” Continue reading “Writing a History of Origins”

Kids Drink Pop, So What?

edgeI think it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask why the above photo (originally found here), recently used as the cover image on the Culture on the Edge facebook page, “works.” Given the theoretical goals of this research group (more on that under Identity), why this image of a young Tibetan Buddhist monk (or at least someone dressed up like one, of course)  drinking so casually from a pop bottle. What do we assume it “says” and about whom? Continue reading “Kids Drink Pop, So What?”

The Other Shoe Drops

stayingpowerIn the same issue of The New York Review of Books that I cited elsewhere (the June 20, 2013 issue), there appears a review essay on two new books on the history of Christianity. Written by the Cambridge University historian, Eamon Duffy, and entitled “The Staying Power of Christianity,” it tackles Robert Wilken’s The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity and John O’ Malley’s Trent: What Happened at the Council. For those interested in bringing more nuanced social theory to the study of religion, Duffy’s opening lines promise much: “If an anthropologist from the star system Sirius were to teleport to earth to conduct a field study of Christianity, where would she go?” What follows is a quick list of several different sites–e.g., a Greek monastery on Mount Athos, a papal mass in St. Peters, a Pentecostal snake-handling service, a Quaker meeting house, etc.–that makes plain that the notion of a homogenous thing called Christianity is hardly a given for many current scholars. “History is written backwards, hindsight is of its essence,” Duffy writes in concluding his introductory paragraph, “and every attempt to characterize any great and complex historical movement is an act of retrospective construction: what is left out of the story is just as significant as anything included.” Continue reading “The Other Shoe Drops”

What is a Andy Warhol?

warholThose interested in how discourses on authenticity work to–as this article states it–stabilize an economy (of any form of signification, be it meaning or money) should consider the current issue (June 20, 2013, vol. 60/11) of The New York Review of Books and its article “What is a Andy Warhol”–an analysis of the goings on of the now defunct, but once powerful and always controversial, Andy Warhol Authentication Board.

Race and Displacement

simmonsMerinda Simmons’s co-edited book, based on a 2009 conference held on the campus of the University of Alabama (of which she was an organizer) that was devoted to the roles of race in such things as displacement, forced migrations, nation and nationhood, and the way continuous movements of people challenge fixed racial definitions, is soon to be published by the University of Alabama Press.