On the Spot with Russell McCutcheon

“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?

Depending who it is I might say “You” and then wink — if it’s a scholar of religion asking, that is. So although I was originally trained in what was called the philosophy of religion — taking doctoral courses on Plato, Kant, with a very early interest in what is commonly called the problem of evil, writing one of my three comprehensive exams on ancient Greek religion and philosophy, etc. — I soon moved to what our program at Toronto had just invented as method & theory, a bit of a catch-all category for some but which, at least for some of us, meant a particular approach to examining how scholars went about their work (not to mention an interest in developing naturalistic theories to explain the existence and function of religion). So although I had an early interest in theories of religion, I’ve come to be interested in theories of “religion” itself, so I study the history of my own field and the ways we go about our work, the tools we use and the larger institutional and social settings in which our work developed and is today carried out. So, really, I’m interested in the politics of classification, as exemplified in this one academic field but in a wide variety of other places as well, dipping into a tradition that owes much to, among others, the late Mary Douglas’s work in anthropology. Continue reading “On the Spot with Russell McCutcheon”

On the Spot with Andie Alexander

“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 you what you study, what do you tell them?

When asked, I usually say I study the ways in which people talk about something called “religion.”  (No, I don’t whip out the scare-quotes…) I frame it this way to shift the conversation away from “Oh, so you want to work in the church?” and (hopefully) to get them to consider what I’m doing when I make that move. Usually, my response prompts them to ask for an explanation. I tell them that my work examines the varying ways in which the category religion is defined and classified and how those definitions are linked to notions of national identity within the U.S. I’m interested in how different understandings of religion are employed, specifically with immigrant groups, in a way to standardize conceptions of religion, or put differently, as a way to Americanize marginalized immigrant groups in the U.S. So rather than studying religion, as one might commonly think, I study how the category of religion is implemented and adapted by scholars of religion and more systemic effects and consequences for both hegemonic understandings of religion and forced assimilation of immigrant groups.

While this is certainly a longer conversation than simplifying our work to “I study history,” I think it’s worthwhile to do. On the one hand, history is no less complicated of a discipline than religious studies, and on the other, our own attempt to set our field apart from more commonly accepted or understood areas of study not only reinforces the idea of religion being set apart and special — i.e., not intertwined with the social, political, etc. — , but also perpetuates the idea that religion is too complex to easily discuss. Thinking about religion through systems of classification and discourse instead of a stable thing that exists in the world, we can approach the study of religion rather differently. Of course, one cannot always get into such an in-depth discussion, but when time allows, it certainly makes for an interesting conversation and helps to get folks thinking about the category of religion in different ways. Continue reading “On the Spot with Andie Alexander”

On Experiences and Institutions

A demonstrator raises his hands in front of police in riot gear during protests in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S., July 10, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“From the outset, people’s experiences of desire and rage, memory and power, community and revolt are inflected and mediated by the institutions through which they find their meaning—and which they, in turn, transform.”

—Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest

“All About the Gut”

rallyWith Merinda Simmons’s post in mind, from a few days ago, concerning the use of “feelings” in current political discourse, a couple things stood out this morning in a radio story on a supposed shift in current US politics. Continue reading ““All About the Gut””

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”

Is Your Group Oppressed?

TenCommandmentsAustinStateCapitol“A war against Christianity,” a friend on Facebook asserted, as he pointed to examples in the United States and around the world. The shooting at Umpqua Community College recently and the various occasions when ISIS has executed people identified as Christians provided prime examples. Others making similar claims point to shifts in US policy, including the removal of the Ten Commandments from schools and courthouses, restrictions on official prayer at public schools, and movements to remove “God” from the Pledge and US money. Continue reading “Is Your Group Oppressed?”

On Storytelling and Disengaging from Immediate Intuition

pierrebourdieu2This is part of a collection of posts of quotations from The Sociologist and the Historian, (first published in French in 2010 and in English in 2015), a short collection of transcripts from a series of late 1987/early 1988 radio interviews between Roger Chartier and the late social theorist, Pierre Bourdieu.

Here I am often tempted to tease my historian friends. They have a concern with writing, with good form, that is quite legitimate, but often they spare themselves the raw vulgarities of the concept, which are extremely important for the progress of the science. The concern for a good story can be very important because there is also a function of evocation, and one of the ways of constructing a scientific object is also to make it felt, make it seen, evoke it almost in the Michelet sense, though I do not care for this very much myself. Can you evoke a structure? That seems very strange, but it is one of the functions of the historian — as distinct from the sociologist, whose task it is, on the contrary, to disengage the immediate intuition; if he wants to explain and election night, he knows that the reader already knows too much about it; so he has to cut back, get down to the essential; while the historian, if he wants to talk about the Benedictine monks, can bring in the forest, etc. There is a function of fine style here. But sometimes, I believe, historians sacrifice too much to good form, and to that extent, do not carry through the break with initial experience, with aesthetic preferences, with the enjoyments associated with the object. (81)

Listen to the original radio broadcast, in French, here.
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Prof. Russell McCutcheon at Lehigh University

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During the last week of October, Culture on the Edge‘s Russell McCutcheon, Monica Miller, and Vaia Touna presented at Lehigh University’s Collaborations: Directions in the Study of Religion. The Edge’s Russell McCutcheon delivered the Plenary address “And That’s Why No One Takes the Humanities Seriously.” The conference included panels on “Tradition,” with a presentation from the Edge’s Vaia Touna, “The Past,” “Identity,” and “Experience,” with a presentation from Monica Miller.

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Lehigh University published a few articles on the conference, which can be found here and here. Lehigh’s own De’Anna Monique Daniels (@DeAnnaMonique) made a Storify of the Plenary which can be found here.

While McCutcheon was there, Lehigh also interviewed him regarding his thoughts on the Humanities and the study of religion in the university. Take a look at what he had to say…

Dr. Russell McCutcheon from Lehigh IMRC.

Special thanks to Lehigh University for hosting this conference and passing this along!

“New Books on the Edge” with K. Merinda Simmons

Simmons-Changing

New Books on the Edge” is an ongoing blog series, which engages forthcoming manuscripts by Edge collective members.

Changing the Subject: Writing Women Across the African Diaspora

From diaspora to class, gender, subjectivity, migration, labor and much more – take us behind the scenes of Changing the Subject — how it came to be, what sorts of questions are raised in this project, and what data is being engaged?

My disciplinary training is in literary theory, and I have long been puzzled by a tendencyI see working in that domain of scholarship. Namely, while so much of the field has been influenced by what many—myself included—see as important poststructuralist intellectual moves, I nonetheless keep coming across analyses by prominent scholars that focus on “authenticity” in one manner or other. This seems an especially noticeable phenomenon within scholarship on texts deemed marginalized—and, as my data set when I began the work that would ultimately become this book was comprised of narratives by women of various African diasporas, I decided to delve into how and why the emphasis on something called authenticity appears in the criticism surrounding these texts. Continue reading ““New Books on the Edge” with K. Merinda Simmons”