In early September 2013 there’s a conference in Liverpool, hosted by the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) and the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). The description of the event–entitled “Religion, Migration, and Mutation”–starts as follows:
On the face of it, the conference theme is dedicated to problematizing the old model that once presupposed normative centers and identities. For now there are multiple authenticies, both at the center and the periphery, that “undermine” those once normative centers and scholars need to be attuned to this. The description goes on:
And this is where–as I’ve tried to argue in previous posts (e.g., here and here)–a curiously conservative social theory and a nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time reappears despite the apparently provocative and timely interest in movement and change.
For we have, on the one hand, religious beliefs and practices, and, on the other, we have culture and history–the apparently still center and the changeable periphery, the former the source code’s home and the latter where mutation happens–and the two seem to meet either periodically or increasingly in our so-called globalized age (what the more critically minded would just call late phase capitalism). The problem, of course, is in failing to see those so-called religious beliefs and practices as anything but culture and change to begin with, i.e., in failing to see the onetime centers of authority that apparently need to be problematized as hardly authoritative in any self-evident way but, instead, as themselves being among a variety of peripheries once competing for the right to portray themselves as if they were a center of consequence. Our failure is taking at face value the myth of origins that authorized them among others in the first place, that prompts us, as scholars, to accept that the things we study have a normative homeland from which they sometimes move (willingly or not), instead of seeing their supposed place as always and already gone. Our problem is in failing to see displacement as the default situation and place as a subsequent creation.
The rather more provocative use of social theory–the one that doesn’t smuggle an unrecognized myth of origins along with it–would have us follow Foucault and rethink our tendency to presume the existence of a source that later distorts, only subsequently mutating into something new (a creole, a hybrid, a diaspora, a mix, etc.). As he wrote in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History” (published in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice  PDF):
What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.
For if this is how we understand history and social formation, as an endlessly ambiguous domain that we continually try to master by signifying it in this or that way, then our goal will not be, as the conference proposes, “to explore how religions transform when they move location”; instead, we’ll understand that things are always moving to begin with–our settled nouns always were verbs on the run–and that the very presumption of an origin that only subsequently moves place and changes is one of the ways that we create the impression of stable, enduring persons, places, and things.
So I think we need to complicate the late Thomas Wolfe’s famous quotation from his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again (1940):
You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
It’s not that we can’t go back home because either home or we have changed since we parted ways, but because that place, and the selves whom we now think once occupied it, was never there to begin with; for the selection of these discrete moments has all been done from the periphery, from a very particular edge called the present, our current locale, a vantage point from which we now choose, based on all too contemporary criteria, what will, for the time being at least, count as the supposedly stable, ideal, normative, and everlasting center of the past.
Nostalgias are always about your present location; centers are only central for a given periphery. If we still used protractors and compasses in elementary school then we’d all probably still know this and be better social theorists.