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.

408087_4444399780723_964551050_nQ: Russell, what types of theoretical and methodological shifts have your work taken throughout the years as it pertains to the category of religion?

A: Much as our initiative, here at Culture on the Edge, makes apparent, I think that it’s tougher work to read an author in his or her historical setting and thus far easier to generalize across what are in fact discrete, situationally-specific works that each engaged discrete issues. I say this in answer to your question because—at least judging from my own point of view, with regard to how I see my own work—I think that my early work is far different from what I’ve been doing these past few years. For example, my early critique of how the category religion was being used was aimed exclusively at what I then was identifying as a theological but also a humanistic group of scholars, while advocating strongly for a way of studying religion naturalistically (i.e., developing a testable, materialist theory of religion, etc.) that, as I argued then, was in keeping with the requirements of the publicly-funded academic study of religion. I think that Manufacturing Religion (1997) and the essays later collected in Critics Not Caretakers (2001) reflect those concerns. And while it is rewarding to learn that others have read your work (whether they agree with me or not), it seems clear to me that, for whatever reason, these are mainly the works of mine that people seem to have read—works written while I was a doctoral student (I finished the ms. for my first book, which was a revision to my dissertation, in the summer of 1995) or those written within the first few years of being an Assistant Professor (e.g., the essays collected in my second book were mostly written in the mid- to late-1990s). So while those works might constitute McCutcheon for some readers, I tend to think of the last chapter of The Discipline of Religion (2003) as signaling an important shift that has been evident since then, toward a far more general interest in the politics of classification and thus the utility of the very category religion itself, regardless how it is defined. That’s a shift that I think worth recognizing and mulling over, and one that helps the collection of essays co-authored with Bill Arnal last year (The Sacred is the Profane) make sense as being aimed at readers who are rather different from my early works.

Simply put, it makes sense to me that while certain writers still appreciatively quote Manufacturing Religion they are silent on what I’ve been writing since then, since for them the category religion is still thought to name something distinct from culture in general (that is, it is not simply used as an item of first order description, as is any item of insider vocabulary that is useful to a group of people in organizing their social world). So even the historically-rigorous types, who see themselves as, say, sociologists, still won’t simply dissolve, for instance, the late Robert Bellah’s notion of civil religion into nationalism or ideology. No, because for them there’s something unique or different about the former that is lost if we just see this or that reference to God in a politician’s speech or a constitution as being nothing more or less than another mundane nationalist convention. So, while such a writer might approve of my early critique of Eliade et al., s/he will likely feel I’ve gone too far in looking at the work “religion” is doing for them. It makes me think of that joke about the old lady saying “Amen” to the pastor as he preaches against this or that vice but when he or she hits on one that’s a little too close to her own preferences she comments under her breath to her seatmate: “Now, he’s quit preachin’ and started meddlin’.”

Q: Who is your favorite social theorist that you don’t really cite or explicitly use in your work?

A: Probably Pierre Bourdieu. His book, Homo Academicus (1984), was really quite important to me early on, when realizing that studying ones own field was a legitimate scholarly exercise. While the late 1980s is not ancient history, a lot has changed since then and “method & theory” talk has become so common now (whatever one might actually mean by it…), that it might be difficult to imagine a time when theory was indeed a dirty word. As I commented recently in an article that’s due out later in the Fall of 2013, I was cautioned in my first job, at the University of Tennessee, to say “approach” and not “theory,” and then in my second job, at what is now called Missouri State, I was told to include something by Peter Berger in my syllabus so as to help make my interest in theory seem acceptable to colleagues—Berger set the limit for what counted as theory for some there, apparently. And I still remember very clearly the senior faculty member from a U.S. state university who kept pressing me, during one of those brief job interviews that people do at our main annual conference, concerning what I really studied—“Where do you get your hands dirty?” he kept asking (I wrote about that experience in the opening to my first book), not content with studying scholars of religion since legitimate scholarship was, at least to him, on Japan or Africa or Catholics. Saying I did fieldwork at conferences like the one that we were then attending didn’t help much.

So although I wouldn’t call myself someone who regularly uses Bourdieu, early on his own work on the French academy was extremely important to me, helping me to keep my eyes on what I was interested in despite how that focus was judged by many others with whom I spoke or who read my work. It was important enough, in fact, that a quote from that book appeared as an epigraph in my own first book.

Q: How easy is it to reach the point of making, what Pierre Bourdieu said, “the familiar strange and the strange familiar”? And what do you see the gains in scholarship being when doing so?

A: I believe your question is in reference to a different quote from Bourdieu that I’ve also used as an epigraph, taken from early on in his little book On Television (1996):

There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness. Flaubert was fond of saying that it takes a lot of hard work to portray mediocrity. Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How can we make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see just how extraordinary it is?

It nicely picks up on that old adage scholars of religion say themselves, the one that your question references, doesn’t it? In fact, I think that Bourdieu’s quote could stand in for the work that we’re trying to do at Culture on the Edge: trying to find or make evident those moments or sites where the mundane, ordinary, historical, and thus contingent work of ongoing social formation is taking place despite people’s claims (or, more often than not, their sheer assertions) of self-evidency or uniqueness. It’s one thing to say that, for example, racial or gendered or national identity is constructed but quite another to get in the trenches and find those particular places where that work is repeatedly happening, since the successful creation and reproduction of each so-called identity depends upon us not seeing that work, not realizing that we are recreating each, moment by moment.

I think that making this switch, seeing the effort that goes into the seemingly mundane, is incredibly difficult for many people, since our very self-perception (that is, how we see ourselves and thus how we understand ourselves in relation to others) is at stake. At the end of the day, we become our own datum—taking the so-called reflexive turn quite seriously is, of course, the gain, for now we recognize that we, as scholars, are no less part of this thing we call history or culture. With reflexivity in mind, I think of how I sometimes use myself, seated in my office with my legs crossed, as an example when discussing topics like this with students. The very way we sit and the manner in which it communicates information to ourselves and others, is an e.g. that is often novel to many of them, those who just think they happen to sit this or that way; but it doesn’t take long for them (especially the female students, most of whom easily recall being taught “how to sit like a lady”) to realize the generational, class, and gendered implications, among others, to sitting this or that way—slouched or upright, legs crossed here or there, or not at all.

But once one makes this shift in how we see the mundane it’s not like some kind of enlightenment has happened, for now the new challenge is in keeping focused (what we mean by being analytic, right?) on the discrete site where you wish to study this process, since now you suddenly see this work going on everywhere, all around you, making it a little difficult to focus since things you used to take for granted suddenly start to become very interesting, all at once, in a whole new way—kind of like walking through a shopping mall and being overcome by the sensory stimuli, not know what to look at because of the sheer volume of things vying for your attention.

Q: Some people read your critique of the category religion as a threat to the field itself, yet over the past decade you have worked to revitalize the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, serving much of your time at Alabama as Department Chair. How do you understand your work in a religious study department in light of your critiques of the category itself?

A: I remember hearing from a faculty member, who worked with me when I was first hired to Chair the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, back in 2001, that colleagues elsewhere in the country wanted to know what it was like to work with me since I was so intent on destroying the field. Such a judgment is sadly evidence of just how carefully we read each other (or, as the case may be, not read each other). Given how much I had written early on in my career concerning how I thought the study of religion ought to be organized and carried out, seeing a job announced, back in 2000, for the Chair of a small B.A. granting program in a major U.S. state university that was, at the time, in need of reinvention, well, it seemed a good place to put my money where my mouth was, as we say. One of the curious things to me is that while many people critique “literature” or “culture” few if any of these critics thinks that Departments of English or Anthropology ought to cease to exist; instead, the argument is that a reconceptualized taxon will lead to a new way of talking about human behavior, or the stuff we seem to leave behind (like those things we call texts, buildings, or bureaucracies). So the rhetoric of “a threat to the field itself” is actually providing cover for another, unarticulated claim: the field as it has come to be practiced by so-and-so or by those who think and act like so-and-so. That is, my critique of the field is a critique of a certain way of approaching a subdomain of human practices, human arts de faire (to nod to the subtitle of Michel de Certeau’s 1980 book, better known in English as The Practice of Everyday Life): a critique of assuming that some domain of the human somehow escapes the manner in which we study other mundane (but no less interesting because of it) things that people do. It is a terribly pompous position, if you think about it, for it dehistoricizes and depersonalizes the field, as if it exists in some unchanging, Platonic realm, whereby any interloper who comes along and things that it is changeable, that it is contingent, and that it could be otherwise is, well, is a threat. Of course, if this thing called the field or the discipline was as static and uniform as this position maintains then how could anyone be a threat to it? That is, built into the charge is the implicit acknowledgement that in fact things could indeed be different—perhaps radically different—and the wagons had better be circled against the incursion of novelty that is beholden to a different set of interests, seeking to achieve different goals. So just because I am a critic of how many Departments of Religious Studies in North America or throughout the rest of the world are organized and the kind of work that takes place within them (whether they go by that name or the many others we group together in our field) does not mean that my goal is to close a unit. Instead, the goal is how to rework it to accomplish something novel. For if we all know that “literature” is a convenient placeholder for a wide array of artifacts and that we use it as a shorthand for complex debates among scholars or among the people they study, then why should the academic study of religion have to follow purer rules than Departments of English?

I’d like to think that I’m pragmatic and that while the people with whom I work have not had to reinvent themselves they have at least mulled over a few topics that don’t just strike me alone as worth thinking through. After all, there’s little, if anything, new in the work I’ve done—we stand on the shoulders of giants, after all. My own initial critique of the field, conceptualized and written, as I said above, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was an attempt to apply in my own field the debates that had long been taking place in English Lit—it’s not a coincidence that, say, a literary critic like Terry Eagleton (at least his writings on literary criticism, as opposed to his more recent writings on theology) figures prominently in the citations of my early work. Although various rear guard actions resulted, some more successful than others, on the part of those trying to protect the aesthetic autonomy of what we might as well just call literariness, I’d like to think that, on the whole, English Lit is healthier for confronting how its practitioners used such technical terms as text, author, or meaning. Whether Religious Studies has equally benefitted from this type of critique has yet to be decided, I think, for despite the prominence now of the terms method & theory, it is hardly common to come across scholars of religion who see their domain as but a subdomain of, say, culture—a domain that, for the sake of taxonomic convenience (there’s only so many hours in the day and we can’t study “it all”), we further subdivide into something we call religion or economics.

But when it comes to the University of Alabama, I’d like to think that the strategies that we’ve adopted here (a reinvention from the top to the bottom) to revitalize the study of religion have been pretty successful. We’re still here, after all, people’s careers are thriving, scholars whose careers started here have moved to wonderful jobs elsewhere, students are excited and using their degrees in innumerably inventive ways (we’re now inviting them to blog about it), and so that’s got to say something, no? We just hired a new colleague and we’re now searching for another. We’re small, yes, but I’d like to think that nimble, little programs can set national agendas as much as the ones that think they run the game. For no one owns the game and yes, things can be different. It doesn’t come easy, but heck, what of worth does?

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