Indexing As Meaning-Making

(Click to enlarge.)

By Andie Alexander

I’m currently creating an index for an edited volume, and while I’ve repaginated an index before (for the new edition of a book), this is the first time that I have ever compiled an index from scratch. As I’ve been going through the book, I’ve been marking all of the important thoughts, people, theories, etc. Well, I say “important” not because those ideas and names are self-evidently interesting; after all, who would think that Ebenezer Scrooge or the recent Disney⋅Pixar film Inside Out would be among the indexed items for an edited volume in religious studies?

Much like the above etymological definition of “index” suggests, indices (or rather indexers — i.e., me), to be more precise, do “discover,” “point out,” and “disclose” information to their readers. That is to say that indices are neither self-evident nor neutral descriptors of a book’s contents. For what would a neutral descriptor even be? The number of times a word appeared? Well no, because apart from the word “the” making an extraordinary number of appearances, even doing such a word count seems to privilege quantity of word usage over the general argument those words are making. That said, indices are anything but neutral and are themselves, by nature of being a human production, very much situated and, yes, biased (they have a viewpoint). So for me, the indexer, to compile a list of what I and those editing the volume deem relevant for the work, I must have a certain understanding of the argument of the book to determine whether Ebenezer Scrooge is worth including in the index — worth offering to a reader as a hint of more to come. That is, in selecting people, places, and ideas for the index, I have to consider which ones I think best direct and support the arguments, theories, and e.g.s of the volume.   Continue reading “Indexing As Meaning-Making”

Response: Center and Periphery

Picture 3Earlier this week Stephen S. Bush responded to one of my posts on his recent monograph, Visions of Religion. In my post I suggested that Bush’s work arguably props up the status quo in our field, and as such he could resort to rhetorical enthymemes that leave certain assumptions unstated and unargued — particularly since sympathetic readers in the mainstream of the field already share those assumptions. In his response Bush claims that I’m unfair to him, since he did provide argumentation for the assertions or assumptions I claimed were unstated or unargued. In addition, he objected to my characterization of his work as representing the center of the field. According to Bush, my work — which focuses on discourse analysis, ideology critique, and power — is closer to the center of the field, and his work — which includes a focus on experience and meaning — is more likely to be considered passé and thus on the periphery. Continue reading “Response: Center and Periphery”

“In Their Own Terms”

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 2.36.55 PM

This past semester in my upper level seminar we were discussing anachronistic uses of categories, among which “religion,” in describing and therefore understanding the past and most specifically ancient Greece, reading among other things Brent Nongbri’s book Before Religion. For those not familiar with the book, Nongbri is offering a historical study of the category religion tracing its origins not in the ancient world but in modern Europe; when used to describe ancient practices Nongbri suggests that the term is anachronistically projected backwards in time, urging his readers to be self-aware when they use that word to talk about the past. Continue reading ““In Their Own Terms””

Making Meaning

6d61b38dff59187fb1a03b5c4cdccc0fThis semester I’m teaching a course on the uses of anachronism in the study of the ancient Greek world, one such anachronism being the concept of religion itself (for it is hardly a local term in the ancient Greek world). Last week, just before class, I happened to stumble across an article that made the rounds on Facebook entitled “Mysterious Chimpanzee Behavior May be Evidence of ‘Sacred’ Rituals.” The title of the article was enough to catch my attention: “mysterious” along with “sacred rituals”? Definitely this was something that I could share with my students. Continue reading “Making Meaning”

On the Systematic Use of Normative Vocabulary

41uV3awt-uL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_In History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People’s Republic of China, John Powers surveys a wide variety of histories of Tibet, written by Tibetan, Chinese, and western (i.e., American or European) authors. The story of the relations between China and Tibet — is Tibet an independent state or merely a small part of China’s empire? — can be told in many different ways, depending on the interests or agenda of the author spinning the narrative. Of particular interest to me is how Powers notes the normative vocabulary of the historians he surveys. The authors tend to systematically use normative nouns and adjectives — with positive and negative valuations attached to them — in their narratives. See the following two tables: Continue reading “On the Systematic Use of Normative Vocabulary”

Taking Theory for Granted

parliamentanthemWithout arriving on the scene with the work of a social theorist like Emile Durkheim in our back pockets, I’m not sure what we would make of the French parliament joining together yesterday to sing their national anthem in the wake of Friday night’s bloody Paris attacks. Continue reading “Taking Theory for Granted”

Do Your Holiday Celebrations Match Up?

Honor_Guard_Ferndale_Memorial_Day_ParadeHow do you celebrate your holidays? The Wikipedia entry for Memorial Day begins with the following description.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces… It typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.


Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.


Continue reading “Do Your Holiday Celebrations Match Up?”

Residual Assumptions

6 Shiv havan cropped

In a recent email discussion among scholars about general issues of representations and Wendy Doniger’s controversial book (about which I have written on Culture on the Edge and Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog), P. Pratap Kumar, a colleague in South Africa, framed the issue through a clear, though contrived, contrast between the scholar and the devotee. He wrote,

Someone who is raised as a Hindu grows up listening to religious songs at Satsangs and even through Bollywood religious songs (there are plenty of Bollywood religious songs that Hindus listen to with utmost devotion) and never would have known that their Hindu texts contain many erotic statements and not just the singular term Linga. But on the other hand, scholars especially from the outside Hindu tradition (be they western or eastern) begin with Sanskrit language and then reading the highly specialised texts where they find statements that devout Hindus would have never heard of. From scholar’s reading, there are indeed very detailed erotic references in many Hindu texts, . . .
We as scholars have to talk about these things because these matters are there in the texts from the Rig Veda to the epics in plenty of places. It is hard to fault a western scholar or any non-Hindu scholar for pointing these out and translating them for what they are.

Continue reading “Residual Assumptions”

Prescriptive Descriptions

whiteflightI recently wrote a post, scheduled for a week or so from now, in which I used the term “white flight” — which names the process whereby many U.S. inner cities have, since about the 1960s, lost a large portion of their white population by people moving out to the suburbs — and so I was thinking about linking the term in that post to a definition online, for those who were not already familiar with it.

So, wondering what it said, I first tried the Urban Dictionary (see the full entry here). The first definition listed on the page reads as follows: Continue reading “Prescriptive Descriptions”

What Do We Do With Ukraine?

Ukraine_CIA_map (1)

My colleagues and I at Culture on the Edge have argued that historical narratives, labels of identification, and sociological analysis often reflect the interests and assumptions of those producing the assertions rather than simple description. When our assertions focus on furniture advertising, analysis of the Nones or interpretations of frescoes, such assertions may seem benign. How do these analytical approaches operate when facing an international crisis such as recent events in Ukraine? Continue reading “What Do We Do With Ukraine?”