“But…, I Can Hear the Ocean”

edgebusterkeatonI’m continually fascinated by the manner in which scholars claim to be historically-inclined — thereby distinguishing themselves from mere amateurs or wannabes — in the very moment that they sprout wings and transcend history. For example, my own interest for some time has been the history and use for the category religion — i.e., what’s socially, politically, etc., at stake (for good or ill) in naming something as religion (or as faith, as spiritual, as tradition, as experience, etc.) and then treating it as such, presuming it shares some hidden link with other things so named. Many people now claim to work in this area, making such a focus on the category religion seem something other than cutting-edge.

But the curious thing, to me, is how this once sharp edge gets dulled when more and more people come to it. For instance, despite many scholars now widely acknowledging that pre-Latin linguistic systems, or those groups outside the influence of Latin-based language families, have no equivalent whatsoever (ensuring that the modern term “religion” [not to mention psyche or gender or race or class or culture or…], if used by scholars, is purely a taxon of analytic utility to the scholar, requiring it to be defined clearly and used with precision), they nonetheless make what sound like purely descriptive claims not only about the origins of “ancient Indian religion” but — and this is the best part — many also claim that, prior to the invention of the modern notion of religion as a specific, isolatable aspect of social life (e.g., the sacred vs. the secular), pre-modern and ancient people alike were uniformly religious — i.e., religion was everywhere…, long before the word/idea was even invented.

The ease with which a modern analytic notion is ontologized and then projected backward in history is therefore fascinating to watch — this is surely a key technique in authorizing ones own contingent social world (for the way we happen to see the world is how the world actually is — what a coincidence!). But from where I sit, such scholars are simply listening to the sound of their own voices while thinking they are listening intently to the ancient sources and the oceanic feeling that is assumed to attend matters of such obviously deep and abiding importance.

That the things we study are important because we study them is certainly not something we’re all that prepared to entertain.

4 Replies to ““But…, I Can Hear the Ocean””

  1. The attempts we make as scholars to understand the experience of peoples separated from us by time, language, geography, and culture are always fraught, and we run the risk of downright intellectual dishonesty if we don’t continually remind ourselves of this fact. The cultic or religious or magical practises that informed the world-experiences of other peoples are remote in ways that are difficult to think; it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our way of being-in-the-world is merely or simply the way.

    Speaking only for myself, this has been a constant struggle, looking for blind spots and silent omissions, catching myself taking the map for the territory. It is always good for me to have a reminder of how important this is.

  2. Indeed–in fact, “cultic or religious or magical practises” are themselves our designators, which are then distinguishable from one another based on our criteria (i.e., that we don’t just call them political practices is the interesting thing, to me)–we have no choice but to develop such designators, of course, to make sense of the world in ways that suit our needs/interests, but I’m not confident that naturalizing these, such that we go looking for, say, an evolutionary theory of magical thinking holds much promise–other than to continue to convince ourselves that the way we happen to know the world is in lock-step with the world itself (whatever it may or may not be).

  3. I suppose I don’t see anyone worth reading making that naturalising move so I’m not sure at whom that critique is directed.

    Regarding the question of why we don’t use the terminology of “political practises”, I think the reason is obvious; such a designator is just as fraught, but lacks specificity in addition. “Cultic, religious, or magical” practises are political to be sure, but so are lots of other kinds of activities; the designator therefore is more general. It isn’t wrong of course, but neither does it help is to understand more completely. It is important to acknowledge that these elements of life are a subset of the political, but of a particular sort that forms meaning in a vitally different way from, though is intimately interconnected with, say lawmaking or property customs.

  4. The naturalizing move is all I see in the scholarship–it is difficult, I think, to point to anyone saying that “religion” is a purely stipulative term that they choose to use to name a heuristically-identified subset of nothing more or less than cultural practices that, for whatever reason, catch the scholar’s attention. From the liberal humanists on the one side, lamenting how secularism has constrained faith (or whatever they choose to call the elusive “it”) to the so-called scientists on the other end, who are working to find religion in our genes, they are all using the term as if it names a naturally occurring element in “the human.” Very troublesome approach, to my way of thinking. I don’t see anything “vitally different”–differences in style or rhetoric, perhaps, but I see little way to distinguish in anything but a stipulative manner this mode of group-building from that.

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