Our Primary Expertise

snowblowingWhen I was a doctoral student, sometime in the late 1980s, I recall Will Oxtoby (d. 2003)–then a professor at the University of Toronto, member of my doctoral supervisory committee and, a few years later, editor of a very popular two volume world religions textbook–saying that theory was like a snowblower (using a suitably northern analogy to make his point); “it helps you to move things around,” he said.

OxtobyA traditional phenomenologist in many ways–and “a devout Christian and vocal proponent of interfaith dialogue,” as his alma mater’s obituary saw fit to point out–Oxtoby clearly assumed that the things of religion (much as many scholars of identity equally assume identity to be) were solid objects out there in the real world (or at least solid sentiments deep inside people’s hearts) and scholarly tools simply merely helped us to work with them and see them from different angles. In this way, he used “theory” more as some would use “method” or “methodology”–in fact, the two are interchangeable for many scholars today. So his interest was apparently limited to studying (as the old saying goes) “that which presents itself to the senses,” of its own accord. Theory, then signified a collection of tools to help us manage all of the many splendid presentations competing for our attention.

snow-maker-7Now that about twenty five years have passed, I forget exactly why we were having that conversation, but in hindsight it’s clear to me that we were staking out positions with respect to each other–for we did not agree on too many things when it came to the study of religion. So I recall replying (in keeping with the wintery imagery of our conversation), that I, instead, thought of theory as being more like a snowmaking machine at a ski resort: for without the device there is nothing to move around and no hills to be groomed. That is, I started with the assumption that the world does not actively pre-arrange and then present itself to our senses in neatly and naturally packaged units (like rows of ground beef in plastic-wrapped styrofoam trays at the grocery store). So theory is a word that I used not just for explanatory, causal accounts but for the self-conscious examination of the conditions (intellectual? social? historical? economic? political?) that make it possible to say that we know something about the world, that something in particular is significant and ought to be talked about. A Freudian theory about the individual in society and the nature of the psyche makes it possible to talk about this thing called anxiety; studying anxiety is thus possible because of theories such as this, not the other way around. Whether or not one feels anxious or some ill-defined foreboding or dread, without the theory I’m not sure one will have a name for it, be able to distinguish this “it” from the hubbub  of daily life, or even see “it” as a problem to be overcome or cured.

So without theory–without a self-consciously employed system to distinguish and then focus attention on a this as opposed to a that–there is, it seemed to me then and still does, nothing to sort through and arrange, for we have no way to mark anything as significant and worth talking about.

jzsmith3There is much riding, I think, on that notion of self-consciousness, for It seems to me that a scholar’s job is to take the usually taken-for-granted structures that allow people to navigate daily life (in the most mundane of ways, which makes them all the more interesting) and make of them items of conversation and debate. Which is likely why the work of Jonathan Z. Smith–who, through an odd quirk of administrative need, was himself a doctoral advisee of Oxtoby’s when Smith wrote his (unpublished) 1969 Yale dissertation, “The Glory, Jest, and Riddle: James George Frazer and The Golden Bough” (see the Preface, p. iii)–has increasingly struck me, over the years, as being so important for a field that has never really shaken off the late 19th century notion of animism (inasmuch as many scholars of religion still seem to presume that the world speaks to them in its own voice of its own significance); for, as Smith famously wrote, over thirty years ago:

the student of religion,… must be relentlessly self-conscious. Indeed, this self-consciousness constitutes his primary expertise, his foremost object of study.” (Imagining Religion [1982], ix)


[December 13, 2013: Interested in a later post, elsewhere,
that elaborates on this one?]

8 Replies to “Our Primary Expertise”

  1. I studied with Will Oxtoby as well – indeed, he taught the method and theory course required for all MA students, and though I did not have much intellectual connection with him at the doctoral level, his influence in graduate Religious Studies at U of Toronto was significant.

    Russ’s account of Oxtoby’s position is accurate, and I share his skepticism about theory just “moving things around.” However, I would like to query the further assertion that experiences do not exist without self-conscious theorizing which brings them, not only into epistemological focus, but into very existence. (“without theory – a self-consciously employed system to distinguish and then focus attention….”). This is an old, old question, posed in innumerable ways. What I would like to raise for discussion is the notion of self-consciousness in theorizing. Aside from the obvious (one cannot know what one does not know), there is still the issue of what one could know if one paid attention. To clarify: I question the possibility of knowledge without *self-conscious* prior theory; that is, I agree with the drift of Prof. McCutcheon’s example about Freud (we would not have Freud’s described experience of anxiety without Freud’s described experience of anxiety). I also think it is important – indeed essential – to query as much as possible the assumptions that underlie our thoughts, actions, and theorizing. However, J.Z.Smith’s oft quoted claim about the student of religion needing to be “relentlessly self-conscious” demands attention to a point whose content and implications have not yet received the serious interrogation it deserves, namely, its gender specificity. Presumably, Smith, and those who follow him, are relentlessly self-conscious on that point. It is not that the question of language has not been raised in many, many circumstances, and indeed with practical effect (“he” means “males”, so those designated females are excluded). I am deeply interested in comments on this point.

  2. Sorry for the lack of clarity in the conclusion of my comment. My question is: is J.Z. Smith’s use of exclusive language intentional?

    If it is, why? If not, what implications does that have for being “relentlessly self-conscious”?

  3. Rather that an “I gotcha,” it strikes me that querying his use of a male pronoun in this statement is nicely in keeping with what Smith was/is driving us as scholars to do. That the quote dates from a time prior to when I myself was first exposed to the issues involved in “man” and “he” prompts me to read a statement likelt written in 1980 or ’81 rather more generously that I would had it been written yesterday.

  4. I appreciate the response given above. My point in raising the question was indeed not a gripe (“where are all the women?”) but a serious observation and query. Keeping in mind the post that prompted the response, one thing it this oft-quoted statement prompts us to ask is why this construction was chosen. What was the condition of acceptable language at the time of its writing? Within what kind of imaginative world does it fit comfortably and without commentary? The world within which Smith was writing was the same world within which Professor Oxtoby, whom I understand was reading Hebrew at the age of five, could say, without qualm, that what I needed to do with my scholarly interests in gender was to put those concerns on hold for twenty years or so, until I gained real scholarly credibility, and then take those interests up again as a sideline. Again, this is not intended as a tale of woe, but as a telling example of how the world is named shapes human possibilities.

    Should Smith’s famous quote be cited without commentary from contemporary scholars? It is an interesting question that asks among other things the extent to which we are responsible for making historical context obvious for our readers. Another question remains: did Smith make this statement intentionally, knowing about language issues, and disregard them as unimportant ? Or did he use the language of the time without noticing what now might be seen as a jarring exclusivity? If the latter, it speaks to the impossibility of being able to bring all that others might see, at some past, present, or future time, to our own consciousness. How we see the world is still provisional – all the more reason for rigor and relentless self-conscousness in our thought and work.

  5. “[J]arring exclusivity”? Randi, you seem to use that as a descriptor when it fact it is a conclusion that I don’t think we can reach on the strength of one thirty year old quotation from Smith cited in the blog post. For I know many people today who, as their way to participate in advancing gender inclusive language, opt to oscillate between male and female pronouns (Aside: what if I happen to quote a line from them with a male pronoun? Do I need to insert commentary assuring readers that the next was a female pronoun?) or those who opt for an exclusive use of female pronouns, etc., etc. I also know people–to think of a related classificatory issue–who opt quite intentionally to continue to use “B.C./A.D” as a way to demonstrate that “B.C.E./C.E.” is simply a cosmetic change and that the same chronological system is normalized despite the apparent change–so it is not difficult to imagine a cosmetic use of female pronouns that normalizes long outdated patriarchal agendas–something one might wish to signal by an intentional use of male pronouns. So before I’d want to come to a conclusion, and thus suggest a need of commentary, I’d want to go through some of Jonathan’s writings form the time and see what he was doing thirty years ago, and more than his pronouns what he was working on etc., and likely see what he’s doing far more recently as well–if gender ideology is the specific lens we opt to read him through for an exercise like this. Of course, I don’t doubt that “he” was used pretty regularly in his writing then, like the vast majority of writers at the time, but even so, I think I’d need more to go on than that concerning the possibly jarring exclusivity of his work, no? For I’d like to think that it is because of the careful focus on classification in his work that some of us are far more concerned with issues such as these today.

  6. I think the juxtaposition of a call for relentless self-consciousness and the use of exclusive language is jarring. Whenever I read that quote or hear it invoked, I am reminded that I am not in the category “scholar” by definition; although exceptions may be made in exceptional cases, it is not the norm. I’m not trying to call out JZ Smith for a moral failing. I use this example to highlight that human ability to know our own blind spots – despite the best will in the world – is frail and faulty. I find the repeated citation of this quote interesting, as it seems to illustrate what it is warning against – in this instance, taking for granted the scholar as normatively male and not querying that.

  7. Calling for relentless self-consciousness ain’t relentless self-consciousness, right? And are not all systems founded on contradictions? So you drawing attention to this is, as I mentioned at the start, nicely in line with the project he advocates–a project filled with inconsistencies and contradictions, yes. But there’s all sorts of unaddressed things going on in a quote like that but there’s only so much time and inclination to address each–so that you want to focus on this is great but is it required of others to focus on it as well? There’s an obvious bias toward literacy and certain educational level presupposed in the quote and a bias toward class position in the medium you and I are communicating in right now, but are these recognitions required as a parenthetical? I guess my point is that I think your observation well worth making–there’s an article in there pretty obviously–but it is but one of likely many blind spots, no? And that’s why we work in scholarly communities, coz I can’t see the back of my own head but hope someone else does…

  8. I stand by my previous comments.

    I reiterate that the issue I have raised is not about Jonathan Z. Smith in particular.

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