Authority & Objectivism in The Things We Study

(Photo: The North American Association for the Study of Religion)

Some of us here at Culture on the Edge are prepping for The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) annual meeting that kicks off tomorrow. Part of the meeting is dedicated to “The Things We Study When We Study Religion.” Three sets of panels address what counts as data and how that data is handled — specifically tackling the objects, subjects, and the role scholars in our scholarship (find more info on the NAASR site). At the same time, here on the blog we’ve been reading Rogers Brubaker’s trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities. In light of the topics being addressed at NAASR, there’s a quote from Brubaker that I find to be relevant and worth mulling over:

“Yet recourse to objectivist language is not simply strategic; it also reflects the deep appeal of essentialist understandings of identity outside the academy. Objectivism is further nourished by the cultural authority of biomedical science.”

While Brubaker goes on to discuss biological research in the study of transgender identity, the above quote is rather apt and quite useful in the broader scope of identity studies as well. Though, there may also be a need to address the essentialist notions of identity that are taken for granted within the academy itself and how authority itself is constituted. In recognizing how authority is constructed it can help remind us to be cognizant of the power that resides in making identity claims to begin with, essentialist claims that nourish objectivism, often taking on a life of their own adding to a broader objectivist language, both inside and outside the academy.

 

Competing Discourses on Life and Death

morgue-pic-rex-912685637

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”

They’re Just Old Buildings, Right?

Picture 29

Prompted by the discussion surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s NAACP resignation, this series of posts is about how and when we take performativity seriously…, and when it bows to interests in historical or experiential specificity.

My brother, Elliot, who died in 1996, was mentally disabled. That’s him above, with my two sisters. And that’s me on the far right; he was 12 years older than me and, as a baby, had taken a particularly bad fall from his highchair; presumably, that’s what caused what, just a couple years later, became painfully apparent to my parents: he had no speech development and began suffering from repeated grand mal seizures. I won’t belabor the tragedy of his life and death, but suffice it to say that in the 1950s there was little choice but to institutionalize him, when he was a young boy, in a government-run institution. So his profound cognitive problems were quickly compounded by a number of physical problems — who knows what all abuse he was subjected to over the course of his life, but from the “cauliflower ears” and missing teeth that soon resulted, well…, it was apparent that life in the institution was horrendous. Continue reading “They’re Just Old Buildings, Right?”

Manufacturing Booty: On How We Stake Our Claims

CoverAs I’m sure we’ve all heard by now, Kim Kardashian’s backside, displayed for the world’s consumption and viewing pleasure (or not) on the front cover of Paper Magazine, “broke the Internet” just a short while ago and has since caused a flurry of debate, shock, praise, and disbelief. Add to that a big-booty praise of “#allday” from her beloved husband, Kanye West which received thousands of Retweets. I’ll leave it for those entering into the debate with interests and intentions of conflict management and moral maintenance to weigh in on what Kim’s big ‘ole butt plastered on the Internet for the world to view and deconstruct means for progress, freedom, justice, feminism, America, motherhood, identity politics, women, sexuality, Kanye, blackness, and much, much more. Amazing how a bare ass on a magazine can speak to and says something about such a *****wide***** variety of topics!
Something more interesting — and fascinating (in my opinion) has caught my attention about the unfolding conversation and ensuing public debate and discourse — that has seemingly little to do with the perceived “object” of study here. I’m more curious about how all of these emerging grand claims to truth (seen in what follows below) sparked by Kim K’s naked badonkadonk are helping it to break the Internet and make possible the Sui Generis booty she (and the world) thinks is so NOT-unique, or, not unique enough to warrant all of the hype. One is not born a big booty, rather, one becomes a big booty, so it seems. We have manufactured the Kardashian booty that we so love to hate and hate to love. Continue reading “Manufacturing Booty: On How We Stake Our Claims”

The Magic of the Melancholy

Picture 3Jazz fans might know the Canadian singer, Holly Cole, and her (in my opinion, wonderful) 1995 album of (again, for me, the wonderful) Tom Waits songs, “Temptation.” In particular, I have in mind Cole’s version of his 1974 song, “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.”

Give a listen to her version:

I find this song to be a great vehicle to discuss how essentialism (and nostalgia) work, for if you listen to the lyrics you’ll quickly see that Waits has selected a series of isolated, almost distilled moments (akin to what’s happening in this deconstruction of advertizing), none more or less indicative of what any particular Saturday night surely feels like (Question: what does Saturday night feel like?), but, together, they begin to paint a picture and, even if you don’t identify with its specific parts, you might yourself longing for this simpler time.

The song opens:

Well you gassed her up
Behind the wheel
With your arm around your sweet one
Your Oldsmobile
Barrelin’ down the boulevard
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night

Obviously, this is not the heart of the Saturday night that I grew up with in southern Ontario, when we eagerly waited for the theme from “Hockey Night in Canada” to come on TV at 8, to watch the Leafs play.

But I digress; the song continues:

And you got paid on Friday
Your pockets are jinglin’
And then you see the lights
You get all tinglin’
Cause you’re cruisin’ with a 6
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night

Cruising with a 6-pack of beer in your Olds — a very particular Saturday night is being created. The song goes on:

Then you comb your hair
Shave your face
Tryin’ to wipe out every trace
Of all the other days
In the week
You know that this’ll be the Saturday
You’re reachin’ your peak

With few words we now know much about the fellow. Then, not long after, the singer asks:

Tell me, is it the crack of the pool balls?
Neon buzzin?
Telephone’s ringin’;
It’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smilin’ from the corner of her eye?
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye.

So here we have a song trying to identify something down in the core, the essence, the heart of Saturday night — not the eve of the weekend, for that would be Friday night, and not the very different eve of the work week, for that would be Sunday night. But, instead, the peak of the weekend: Saturday night. It should be clear that the lyric that begins “Tell me, is it the…” could have had innumerable items listed after it, such as “‘Hockey Night in Canada” theme?” or “fact that you have to work the weekend — again,” indicating that there are as many Saturday nights as their are definers of what counts as the definitive Saturday night, which makes a search for its core rather pointless, no? I recall my older sister, a nurse who worked shift-work all her career, and how the holidays — days that just felt like a holiday, right? — for us were never necessarily the holidays for her; hospitals run 7/24/365 and somebody’s always on the job there.

But the trick is in painting a picture just vague enough to allow the listener to connect with it in some unexpected way — such as how this song, for whatever reason, brings back memories for me (there’s the nostalgia…) of young guys cruising their old cars up and down the streets of my small childhood town, hanging out in the parking lot of a grocery store, or maybe the high school, and lifting their cars’ hoods to, well, just stare at the engines for a while. Listening to Rush playing on someone’s car stereo.

Though I never did that, and that’s not exactly what the song is about, that random childhood memory of my own got hooked on something in that lyric years ago, a lyric which was vague enough not to repel what it was that this one listener wanted to do with it.

(Aside: This is also the secret to good campaigning, no? For if you’re trying to build a broad coalition, then your specificity must be moderated by pithy vagueries that listeners can do as they like with — like: Hope, A Stronger America, A Thousand Points of Light, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, or Yes We Can….)

And so — at least for me, with memories of listening to this song having already moved away from Toronto, but with it tethered to yet other memories of discovering Holly Cole while living in Toronto (there’s that nostalgia again…), seeing her preform in a small bar downtown, missing not the song’s home but my home… — this song works. It captures a dream of a forgotten Saturday that, if I’m being truthful, I’ve never had nor ever will. It suggests a simpler time, when pocket change mattered, when second cousins lived around the corner and knew where to find you downtown, when driving up and down the streets was a sufficient pastime.

The trick of being a good essentialist, then, is to select what champions your case and to portray it as universal, yes, but also to keep it vague enough for others to buy in for their own reasons.

And if you don’t know it, here’s the original…

“All Words We Choose from a List”

Picture 1

Have you seen this video, deconstructing advertising? A selection of unconnected images and words that creates an impression…, to which you can tie virtually any product, interest, or identity.

“Here’s a picture of DNA…”

(The original post on which the video is based.)

Who Are You? I’m a New Mom

2013-09-04_16-34-19_528

Who Are You?” asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.

Being a mother was never part of my general life plan.  In fact, where babies are concerned, I’m the unsophisticated rube who tends to think all infants look, sound, and smell the same.  So, when my partner and I learned we were going to be parents in just forty short weeks (that’s another thing—even now, the week count might as well be military time, as far as I’m concerned), we traded blank stares regarding what that means or how to go about thinking toward how our lives would change once the squirmy, cartilage-laden fellow joined us. Continue reading “Who Are You? I’m a New Mom”

Group Fiction

256px-Religious_symbols-4x4.svg

When the Huffington Post included “The ‘Nones’ Get Organized” in its list of the of Top Ten Religion Stories for 2013, the description illustrates further the problems with much of our discourse. Not only does the account switch too easily from “Nones” to the organizers of the “Sunday Assembly,” a congregational gathering focusing on nontheists, but the account also illustrates the absence of commonality, even among a subset of the “Nones,” while still discussing the “Nones” as if they form a group to be organized. Continue reading “Group Fiction”

On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith

“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.

leslieQ: Leslie, you have a book out soon that is on the way a certain rhetoric of chaos vs. order is used by some groups in the U.S. to organize themselves, by distinguishing their members from others, their preferences from others, and their values from others. Is that a fair (if general) description of your project? Could you tell us more?

A: Yes – this is a fairly unorthodox approach to a very mainstream subject.  The book, which is about the rhetoric of one Christian Right group, is entitled Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America (Oxford, 2014). Continue reading “On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith”