No There There

a hand printSometime ago I realized that there was important theoretical work signaled by gerunds—verbs that masquerade as nouns; for instance, as I once phrased it, the advantage for a social theorist of the concept “social formation,” as opposed to, say, “social forces,” “society,” “group” or even “institution,” was that it “nicely represents not only the ongoing work of bringing an imagined social group into existence but also the sleight of hand in making it appear always to have existed.” So “social formation” could name a thing, of course, prefaced by an indefinite article, for example, but, simultaneously, it can also name the ongoing process whereby the supposed thing comes into being, repeatedly and continually. Singing a national anthem is therefore an event in the day and life of members of a social formation, yes, but at the same time it is a socially formative act, i.e., a repetitive act constitutive of the formation of a particular, shared idea of citizenship—one element of a never ending process of identifications we might awkwardly term citizenizing.

If social life is dynamic, always caught in the act of creating and legitimizing itself, then words to name it that tactically convey, like Gertrude Stein’s old saying about Oakland, that there is no there there, would be particularly handy to the astute theorist. Gerunds therefore keep processes and the people who manage them on the table, something that is lost when static nouns take center stage.

This emphasis on processes is evident in the work of Jonathan Z. Smith, the scholar of religion who—at least over the past fifteen years or so—has certainly been most influential of my thinking (as evidenced in many of my posts on Culture on the Edge). Looking at his book titles alone, it should be clear that the –ing ending of such titles as Imagining Religion (1982), Relating Religion (2004), and even his most recent edited collection, On Teaching Religion (2013)—something that obviously influenced my own Manufacturing Religion (1997) and Studying Religion (2007)—ensures not just that the notion of process remains at the forefront of our studies, thus prompting us to have an eye toward change and history, but it also keeps our eyes on agency, inasmuch as procedures presuppose actors and their activities. Perhaps this is why I wrote, just above, that Smith’s works have been influential of my thinking rather than of my thoughts—inasmuch as the later portrays as settled what the former represents as an ongoing, contingent activity. In fact, when co-editing a Festschrift in honor of Smith, Willi Braun and I very much had on our minds his focus on agents, their structured situations, the choices they make within them, and the manner in which these situations make certain sorts of agents possible; that’s among the reasons we settled on the title Introducing Religion (2008).

But in arguing for the importance of gerunds I think of Gustavo Benavides’s critique of, as he put it, “the tyranny of the gerund.” As he phrases it there:

But it is also worth considering whether the relentless processual emphasis, embodied in the gerund, is not likely to distract scholars of religion from seeking to identify the building blocks, the constants, the recurrent features of religion. In other words, while it is important not to succumb to reification, it is also necessary to keep in mind that the rejections of hypostases can itself be reified.

“If one is to do justice to that elusive cluster called religion,” as Benavides argued in a related essay two years earlier, in which he offered a similar critique directed at my first book, “one certainly needs to generate theories; but in order to be able to develop those, it is necessary to have access to more translations, to more old-fashioned philological work, to more historical accounts, to more ethnographies.”

The notion of building blocks, of raw materials as he has also phrased it, from which “that elusive cluster called religion” results, is, for me, an indication of an approach that has not taken the social theory behind the gerund all that seriously—and for good reason, of course, since it troubles many of our commonplace assumptions about how the world, and our place within it, works. For in reply I might inquire: Translations of what? Philologies of what? Histories of what, starting when, and from whose point of view? And lastly, ethnographies of whom with questions posed for what purpose? That is, without a stipulative definition of our object of study that I, as a scholar, working within a scholarly tradition, come to the table with (and which is therefore not a naturally occurring artifact already operating outside me, in the world, somehow drawing on obviously relevant constitutive items), I’m not sure which of the many things people write, say, do, or leave behind, ought to attract my attention qua scholar, ought to be included in that family I’m examining–whether we’re talking about race, gender, religion, culture, etc.

I’m therefore not sure where to dig for those coveted raw materials, let alone which tool to use to unearth them and refine them.

Instead of a divining rod guiding me, or instead of naturalizing the commonsense of my own social group, I have argued (in ways obviously indebted to Jonathan Z. Smith) on a variety of occasions that, as scholars, our choices, our definitions, and the connections that they allow us to make from within a veritably unlimited archive (called “the past”) are, instead, actively constitutive of the things that will come to orbit together in that supposedly elusive cluster; in fact, this indicates to me that there is nothing elusive about it whatsoever, for I (i.e., my interests, my curiosities, my theories) am the unifying, stipulative force (i.e., religion is nothing but the product of the discourse on religion, as so many scholars now uncontroversially claim when it comes to such other cultural items as race or gender or nationality). Attributing elusiveness to the product of my own discursive practices strikes me as ahistorical and obscurantist, i.e., an effort to erase our own tracks, as if the object we created somehow got there of its own accord.

Taking gerunds seriously therefore means always looking for the fingerprints—even if they are our own.

4 Replies to “No There There”

  1. Taking gerunds seriously therefore requires one to know what a gerund is in the first place. I am inclined to wonder whether the author has any familiarity with linguistics whatsoever. The absurdly dense, unnecessarily abstract, pretentious writing style makes me suspect that the good Mr. McCutcheon is trying to pull an Alan Sokal. Indeed I hope that is the case.

  2. I thought the first paragraph had made evident (whether you are convinced or not) that, for me, the term “social formation” ambiguously functions as both a noun and a verb–a sufficient ambiguity, it seems to me, to warrant linking it to the grammatical type we call gerunds. As for being dense, abstract, and pretentious–something one could say of your allusion to the Sokal affair of the late 1990s–there are plenty of other pieces on this site that you may find for more palatable to your reading tastes. I hope you explore them.

  3. Moving past idolatry. I’m curious about what method(s) may be suggested for follow-up on last sentence about “looking for fingerprints,” whether that of others or one’s own. Doing so in a non-naturalizing manner may entail a set of internal and external checks, such as rigorously applying several critical methodologies and circulating one’s work for peer review. All of that work, from the wider perspectives of “for/of what?” and “whose?” critical questioning, is divining that take place among the gods of academia’s arts and sciences. Indeed, when my grad student cohort experienced the discovery of “McCutcheon” and “that other Smith,” the anti-W.C., akin to new gods that challenged those of McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies. Sharing results with informants prior to publication, such as most ethics review boards demand of anthropologists and sociologists, is also divining. The contents of the work to which you refer is useful, but I feel unsettled much in the way I felt when I read the end of Heidegger’s “Question Concerning Technology”: how might “only the gods save us” when we are the gods? Moving past idolatry requires so much responsibility! Feeling the weight of that responsibility while not naming it, I think, is what irks so many who confront the demands of critical theory.

  4. “Moving past idolatry requires so much responsibility!”

    Exactly. I don’t want to get all existentialist here, but it comes down to owning something–a situation, an interest, a curiosity, an assumption…, I often think. Are we up to the task? That’s the question. Being prepared to say “For me, ‘gerund’ means…, and this is why I define it in this way… And this is why your use is problematic” is a move from “gerund means…”–it means moving the conversation from facts to interests–resolving disputes by addressing different goals and assumptions (what, as scholars, I think we mean by “theory”) rather than looking at the crime scene more closely for overlooked clues. That is, recovering the human: which is just a sloppy way of saying historicizing inasmuch as I mean taking into account choice, accident, happenstance, slippage, contingency, interest, revision, etc., all of which means continually looking for moments of structure/agency oscillation, and what’s at stake in portraying moments that are inevitably both (i.e., structure and agency are just analytics we use for purposes, to tease out things we wish to talk about) as is they are one of the other. In the academic study of religion there are those of us who emphasize structure because, I think, we find the focus on seemingly lone individuals and their meanings as problematic for a variety of reasons, but the pendulum swing to structure fails to historicze those so-called structures as well, I’d argue, i.e., to see, say, grammar as itself being an historical invention of multiple agents, none of whom were there at its origins (i.e., the Nile has no origin, instead it has far too many origins to be able to manage it as something that apparently begins somewhere and goes somewhere–we need an authorized social actor able to police his or her choice as to which of the many sources will be THE SOURCE).

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