Academic Style and the Voice of Authority

The cover of a book called Visions of Religion

I recently finished reading Stephen S. Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (Oxford University Press, 2014). The book argues that scholars of religion who focus on power (e.g., those who use the theories of Foucault or Bourdieu) to the exclusion of the role of religious experience and symbolic meaning of emic discourses do a disservice, and that all three — power, experience, and meaning — should be included in an account of religion. He attempts to offer an argument as to why all three are important, and to counter objections that the different approaches are intrinsically at odds.

One thing that struck me about Bush’s writing style was how often he made a number of explicitly normative claims, as well as a number of “should” statements, which were put forward as if they were self-evidently authoritative. Consider the following passages. Continue reading “Academic Style and the Voice of Authority”

Competing Discourses on Life and Death

A morgue

According to this news story from a few years ago, a “living” man from Ohio was legally ruled “dead”:

A US man declared dead after he disappeared nearly three decades ago cannot now be declared officially alive, though he has returned home and is in good health, a judge has ruled.

Donald Miller of Ohio left behind a wife, two children and significant debt when he fled his home in 1986.

He was declared legally dead in 1994, then re-emerged in 2005 and attempted to apply for a driving license.

A judge this week found death rulings cannot be overturned after three years.

Judge Allan Davis handed down the ruling in Hancock County, Ohio, probate court on Monday, calling it a “strange, strange situation”, according to media reports.

“We’ve got the obvious here. A man sitting in the courtroom, he appears to be in good health,” he said, finding that he was prevented by state law from declaring Mr Miller legally alive.

“I don’t know where that leaves you, but you’re still deceased as far as the law is concerned.”

What we have seems to be a case of competing discourses. If this man went to the hospital, it seems unlikely that the doctors would direct him to the morgue. On the other hand, from the court’s perspective he is dead and thus not eligible to get a driver’s license. Continue reading “Competing Discourses on Life and Death”

Handcuffed to Authority

Residents of Eastern Pennsylvania can sleep a bit easier now that Eric Matthew Frein was apprehended. Frein is accused of murdering Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Bryon K. Dickson and the attempted murder of another officer, Alex Douglass. Authorities scoured the Pocono Mountains looking for this self-professed survivalist for forty-eight days. On October 30, U. S. Marshalls found Frein near an abandoned airfield, handcuffed him, and placed him in a police cruiser. The man with a hatred for authority had been captured.

A man in handcuffs and a jumpsuit getting escorted out by police

(Photo: AP/Jason Farmer, The Scranton Times & Tribune) USA Today

As it turns out, the handcuffs placed on the fugitive once belonged to Corporal Dickson, as did the cruiser used to transport Frein. According to Commissioner Frank Noonan, authorities “agreed that if we had the opportunity, then it would be fitting to use Corporal Dickson’s handcuffs…when we caught him.” At first glance, placing Dickson’s handcuffs on Frein is, indeed, a fitting response to the fear that has gripped the area. Symbolically, it represents the restoration of justice and safety seemingly safeguarded by the authority of law enforcement – with an added symbolic retribution forced upon the criminal. Perhaps, this handcuff story evokes a retributive sort of solidarity enacted as Dickson lives on in the form of his handcuffs now binding the hands of his alleged killer. But the story might also reveal our particular bondage to a certain vision of authority and justice as natural. Continue reading “Handcuffed to Authority”

Everybody Plays the Fool

collaborate

When [Walter] Kirn was just starting his novel-writing career, he met a man who was a bold financier, an art collector, a fussy eccentric, a dog lover and a Rockefeller. They became friends.

But over the years Kirn began to learn that the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller was none of that — not even a dog lover. He was a psychopath and a killer.

How did Kirn fall for the fraud? Was Christian Karl Gerhartsriter — aka “Clark Rockefeller” — extraordinarily compelling? Or was the novelist, like a lot of other people drawn to the imposter, duped by his own desire to have an attachment to a famous name?

So opens a radio story on the curious case of Clark Rockefeller — or, might we say instead, the curious case of people, such as Kirn himself, who believed his friend to be the man he claimed to be. The difference between how we approach this story — is it about Rockefeller (pictured above) or Kirn? — tells us much about the social theory used to tell the tale. Continue reading “Everybody Plays the Fool”

Why Am I Cheering for My Team?

Picture 1While I admit to having issues with the sort of individual, rational thinker that Chomsky presupposes when he’s making his critiques of the (often unseen) politics of dominant institutions, his thoughts on identification practices via sports (the clip is from the 1992 documentary, “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media”) are worth posting, I think — what with the U.S. national championship in College football just having passed by (Roll Tide), the Superbowl coming up in a few weeks, and also the Winter Olympics in Russia, and all the media hype that comes with each of those. Continue reading “Why Am I Cheering for My Team?”

Misplaced Agency

Misplaced agencyThe assumptions within the assertions of identification in the Reza Aslan/Fox News interview have received some attention this week, including Craig Martin’s “Identity Claims Play out on Fox” and Russell McCutcheon‘s “Are You Buying It?” both on this blog. A different comment from Aslan, though, grabbed my attention (unfortunately not for its uniqueness). In addition to emphasizing his academic credentials to defend his study of the historical Jesus, published as Zealot, he argues that his identification as Muslim is irrelevant because his book “overturns pretty much everything that Islam also thinks about Jesus.” Since his work is not trying to promote Islamic orthodoxy, it seems that his religious identification is irrelevant.

Continue reading “Misplaced Agency”

In Place/Out of Place

1002124_10152985753095487_1101120275_nAs I recall Bruce Lincoln remarking in Authority: Construction and Corrosion, if you want to see how systems of authority work, then you need to study them when they break down (as he did in the case of one of former President Reagan’s interrupted speeches); for we can’t usually see them when they’re functioning properly, since we take them for granted as part of the landscape. Continue reading “In Place/Out of Place”

Agreement and the Right to Speak

a drawing of a hand covering a man's mouth reading "QUIET!" in all capital lettersPeople who identify themselves as a member of a community sometimes limit who can represent “their” community, especially if they perceive the community as marginalized or misrepresented in some fashion. Generally, the argument is that only those identified as being within the community have the right to make public representations of it. As an example, a few who identify as Hindus have complained about those not born as Hindus making public and academic assertions about things designated “Hinduism.” Continue reading “Agreement and the Right to Speak”