On the Spot with Russell McCutcheon

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

 1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

Depending who it is I might say “You” and then wink — if it’s a scholar of religion asking, that is. So although I was originally trained in what was called the philosophy of religion — taking doctoral courses on Plato, Kant, with a very early interest in what is commonly called the problem of evil, writing one of my three comprehensive exams on ancient Greek religion and philosophy, etc. — I soon moved to what our program at Toronto had just invented as method & theory, a bit of a catch-all category for some but which, at least for some of us, meant a particular approach to examining how scholars went about their work (not to mention an interest in developing naturalistic theories to explain the existence and function of religion). So although I had an early interest in theories of religion, I’ve come to be interested in theories of “religion” itself, so I study the history of my own field and the ways we go about our work, the tools we use and the larger institutional and social settings in which our work developed and is today carried out. So, really, I’m interested in the politics of classification, as exemplified in this one academic field but in a wide variety of other places as well, dipping into a tradition that owes much to, among others, the late Mary Douglas’s work in anthropology.

2. How do questions of identity manifest in your research?

Well, if we make the shift that our group has long advocated, we start talking about identifying and identification, instead of identity, seeing this thing we all commonly call “our identity” not as the starting point or the origin (as many do, of course) that is only subsequently expressed in public (via some symbol or fashion or cuisine or action etc.) but, instead, as the result of a series of prior processes that we can study — from individual practices to far wider, impersonal social structures. As such, there’s not much of a jump from studying systems of classification and how social actors not only name but also arrange and rank their worlds to how they identify not just things as a this or a that but (given that we often use the word identity today when talking about the way people name and group themselves in relation to others) but also people as a this or a that, e.g., as safe or dangerous, familiar or strange, allowed or disallowed, etc. It really isn’t much of a leap — once a scholar of religion starts to see the distinction between sacred and profane or holy and unholy, to pick just two distinctions familiar to our field, as not naming essences in the items so named but, instead, as a convention used to arrange items in the world, as the same or different — to move from studying religion to studying identity, for the challenge is the same in each case: how to see both of these as the products of practical situations to which we might not normally pay attention. So, in a way, I guess those of us who make this shift have people like Roland Barthes influencing us, often somewhere well in the background, since this is just a long-winded way of saying one studies signification. And I’m comfortable with that, though I certainly don’t consider myself to be a semiotician.

3. Can you give us an example of this from your previous work?

Well, there’s certainly a variety of examples in the things I’ve written. But instead of looking back, take a case I just posted to our student Facebook group moments ago, as an example of the things that we might study popping up in the current news: a small county commission in North Carolina lost a court case in which they fought for their right to open their meetings with prayer. Now, the US Congress opens with prayer and has a chaplain, of course, but the compromise the courts have reached is that such prayers have to be rather general and not too explicitly bear the traces of specific religions — otherwise there’s Constitutional issues that have to be addressed (the so-called separation of church and state). But the Rowan County Commission regularly opened their meetings with prayers explicitly “in the name of Christ” or, as evidenced in the ending of one particular prayer, captured in a video of a March 2012 meeting where the public could comment on all this: “as we pick up the cross, we will proclaim his name above all names, as the only way to eternal life. I ask this in the name of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.” To which many of those in attendance, in unison, said “Amen.” Now, we have here a rather interesting moment, where a group of local people are contesting another group of people (by taking them to court) because the latter were signifying themselves while wrapped in the authority of the nation-state itself, and the contest played out within the context of the rules by which all members govern daily social life (of course I mean the US Constitution). If religion is all about an inner sentiment expressed in public (call it faith or belief, if you like), as many members of society think (many scholars included), then this case might not be that interesting; but, making the shift that I outlined above, of seeing practices themselves as creating those seemingly internal dispositions we call belief or faith or experience, well, a fellow saying a prayer in such a setting is a rich e.g. that allows us to watch how groups draw and police boundaries while others challenge them, all for purposes of creating or contesting affinities and allegiances within the wider group.

4. Where are you hoping to go next with your scholarship?

I tend not to plan these things all that much, maybe making evident that intentions and “best laid plans” probably don’t govern nearly as much as we all hope. After all, remember the next English line of that famous Robert Burns Scottish poem: those plans “oft’ go awry.” (The story, if you don’t know, is that he composed the poem just after unintentionally plowing through a mouse’s nest out in the fields.) As I’ve said on other occasions, apart from my first book, which was a revision of my dissertation, I tend to be an essayist (and, really, if you think about it, just what is the difference between a chapter and an essay…?); it’s a genre that affords me discrete little experiments and, given my interest in the field, they each respond to unplanned situations that come along — something that I see in a journal, something that happens at a conference, something in the news or, as is often the case, something that takes place in the classroom. Right now there’s something that recently occurred on social media, during our last scholarly conference last November, that continues to knock around in my head, coupled with a piece or two recently published in some of the major journals in the field, that’s making me think there’s something to be written on the comfort some scholars feel in seeing their scholarship as explicitly involved in their own political causes; the fascinating thing is the difficulty I have imagining such people extending this same privilege to those who hold drastically different politics, so I’m curious about the manner in which an unrecognized privilege comes with calls for scholars to be politically engaged in their research and teaching. Ironically, perhaps (though, if religion is seen as but one aspect of the mundane human, it’s not so ironic at all but completely expected), its an issue not all that different from the Rowan County Commission’s prayers, mentioned above; for it’s not difficult for someone other than a Christian (or, better put, with those prayers in mind we should say a specific sort of Christian) to see the privilege exemplified in thinking that they can simply say their prayers at official government functions and have that not seen as official sanction for their position. For all one has to do is imagine a rather different group coming forward expecting the same right and it’s not difficult to hear the response that would greet them. So some scholars today, in what I imagine to be their frustration with the direction of US politics at the present moment, strike me as dismantling longstanding (and, yes, sometimes contested) protective structures that, I would argue, have helped the academic study of religion to establish itself, thereby jeopardizing the field’s future. So I think this is worth mulling over some more and, perhaps, writing up.

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