On the Spot with Matt Sheedy

“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?

My current elevator pitch is that I study religion, culture, and politics in the Euro-West, with an emphasis on North America. When I expand on this description, I typically say that my work centers on questions of religion in the public sphere. On the meta-level this means paying attention to how dominant ideologies, such as multiculturalism, liberalism, and secularism, construct how ‘religion’ is mediated or understood and thus how it functions to regulate group identities in particular ways. As for methodology, I tend to rely on ideology critique, along with discourse and narrative analysis (including theories of affect and rhetoric)  to examine the various ways that religion and culture are represented — in news media, film, and popular culture. While my data is, in theory, open to any groups that make these sort of claims, I tend to focus on insiders and outsiders representations of Islam, (North American) Indigenous traditions, atheism, and Christianity.

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

Questions of identity are often central to kind of work that I do. For example, I’ll look at popular examples of how religion (or secularism) is narrated (e.g., by pundits, politicians, or in pop culture) as instances of identity formation. Here the focus is on how actors attempt to draw lines around what, e.g., ‘Islam’ or ‘Christianity’ is, while at the same time failing to reflect upon the ways in which these normative statement function to shore-up their own identities (e.g., as superior, better, more rational, ethical, etc.). In short, this line of inquiry forces us to ask where (and why) people are ‘hiding the ball’? Continue reading “On the Spot with Matt Sheedy”

On Kings and Trump Cards

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

During the Super Bowl, RAM Trucks debuted a controversial truck commercial splicing images of Americana with a sermon excerpt from slain Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

After outrage gave way to discourse, cultural critics were quick to point to the irony of Dodge’s signification. In the originating sermon, “The Drum Major’s Instinct,” King critiques self-interested pursuits that hinder people’s ability to see the value in others. He literally calls out Americans who ride in expensive “Chrysler” vehicles for the ego trip. NB: FiatChrysler Automobiles is the parent company of RAM.

To make the point,  the left-leaning magazine Current Affairs re-edited the commercial with an audio excerpt from the same sermon that they believe to be more indicative of King’s message. Continue reading “On Kings and Trump Cards”

Wax On, Wax Off

saladbarI was having lunch the other day, facing a salad bar, and it occurred to me that here we have a wonderful example of what it means to study signification. Continue reading “Wax On, Wax Off”

“The Star-Maker Machinery Behind the Popular Song”

wreckingcrewLike the recent documentary on the largely unknown session musicians associated with recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a group that produced the sound associated with much popular music from the 1960s on, there’s an equally interesting 2008 documentary on a group of equally unknown LA-based musicians who appeared on countless albums, dating from the early years of rock and roll, but who also performed on a wide variety of other albums, movie scores, and TV themes songs.

Like the late, famed studio musician Tommy Tedesco (pictured above, with Carol Kaye) who played (among the many other well known songs) the iconic theme from this classic TV show:

Continue reading ““The Star-Maker Machinery Behind the Popular Song””

Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Cultural Symbol

Engagement Ring

When I got engaged twenty years ago, my then-boyfriend purchased me an engagement ring that looked very much like the one above. While both of us were from working-to-middle class families, it was a well-known custom in our corner of the world (as it remains in many places) for men to save up months and months of their salary – even perhaps selling things of considerable value – to procure a ring deemed suitably large, beautiful, unique, etc. for their brides-to-be. Despite the fact that I might do things differently now, at the time it never occurred to me to question this process. Continue reading “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Cultural Symbol”

Code Switching in the Funny Papers

Picture 6This morning on National Public Radio, there was a story on a cross-cultural comic book superhero…. Continue reading “Code Switching in the Funny Papers”

Jump the Shark

spoilers

While I’m sure there’s long been lots of people eager to give away the ending to a good play, radio drama, novel, or movie — and yes, I’m certainly one of them — it seems to me that the current fashion of saying “Spoilers…” to make one immune from learning the ending is a good example of how material culture drives social habit, demonstrating that the two are simply different analytic nodes of the same, mutually constituting thing. Continue reading “Jump the Shark”

Whose Culture?

CE 256px-BEIJINGThe New York Times headline Sunday “In China, ‘Once the Village is Gone, The Culture is Gone’” certainly grabbed my attention for its construction of “China” and “culture”. The article and accompanying video decry the loss of villages across China due to urbanization. While many migrate for jobs, some are forced to leave their village due to development plans. Since the state owns the land, the government can force people to move to make room for proposed developments, a golf course in this example. Continue reading “Whose Culture?”

Seeing Things Unseen

An ad seen on a table in the book display at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Baltimore:

Things Not Seen coverIf we’re defined by our other, then I’d say that this is what Culture on the Edge is not? For we instead start with the assumption that claims that something can’t be seen can themselves be seen and heard and felt, etc., etc. Continue reading “Seeing Things Unseen”

Bayart on the Imaginaire

edgebayart

“In short, the ambivalence inherent in the very notion of the imaginaire and its complex relationship with the order of materiality compels us to relinquish a certain use of the concept that is nonetheless widespread. We should not take literally expressions such as ‘social imaginaire‘ or ‘historical imaginaire‘. They are convenient, but they suggest that a given social (or historical) imaginaire is a totality, endowed with a range of relatively coherent and restricted meanings. This might lead us to attribute to the imaginaire powers that we have just denied culture, and to confer on it the ability to over-determine political practice. When all is said and done, the concept of the imaginaire, understood in this way, is no more than a pedantic version of the concept of culture.” (227-8)edgepluschange