“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”
Words matter. Which words we use to describe a person or a group can have a significant impact on the image that our description and analysis constructs. In the aftermath of the Parkland School shooting a few weeks ago, a Pennsylvania ceremony that involved the blessing of AR-15s drew considerable response in the traditional media (as in the screenshot above) and across social media. It is easy to see the ways that the narrative about the ceremony became a pawn within the renewed gun control debate, illustrating how narratives are more about the interests of narrators than the specifics of the event. But more than that point (which my colleagues have made before in posts on topics such as sex workers or charges of Satanism) is the significance of the names that different commentators used for this group and ceremony. Continue reading “Naming Things”
By Andie Alexander
“So are you a political activist now?”
I’m not the kind of person who often posts on Facebook about politics. After all, I’m still a grad student hoping to get a job one day, and there’s no telling what sorts of ideas people could formulate about me based solely on my Facebook posts. With that always in the back of my mind, I tend to keep my posts mostly about the academic study of religion (well, that, and pictures of my dogs, obviously, because they’re adorable). However, over the past few weeks, I have been sharing significantly more news articles and reports on my Facebook page. In the wake of this exponential increase in the number of political articles and photos from the Denver Women’s March (see above) on my page, folks were somewhat surprised with my seemingly sudden interest in politics. So much so that some have even called me a political activist.
When others heard these comments about my newfound activism, some agreed in a positive way, while others maintained that I was not a political activist and that I was just sharing information. However, what struck me about these comments was not whether I really am/am not a political activist — to me that misses the point. Rather, I am more interested in this label or designation of “political activist.” For the more I thought about it, I realized that this identifier rarely has a positive connotation. Continue reading “The Politics of Activism: On Rhetoric and Power”
Several years ago, at Chipotle, I realized that one of the workers behind the counter was a student of mine, one to whom I’d spoken the week before about his poor performance and a particularly compulsive (and, for me, wildly distracting) propensity to text during class. As we were suspended in an awkward moment where he was asking me what kind of salsa I wanted, another question came out of his mouth as well: Did he still have to call me “Dr. Smith” when he was at work?
My answer, as I remember it, was stumbling and incoherent, comprised of “uh” and the general surprise of not knowing what to say. On the one hand I didn’t really care what he called me, for plenty of my students call me by my first name. On the other hand, though, Dr. Smith was not mentally in the building, so to speak; I was not expecting anyone to call me by my professional title, so I was caught off guard when it came up in a weekend conversation about tacos and corn salsa. But before I could think much more about the significance of what he had asked and how I had responded, the chatter devolved into guacamole and credit cards, and the exchange was over just as fast as it happened. Continue reading “Standing in Line at Chipotle (or, the Hefty Politics of Naming)”
This semester I’m teaching an introductory course on the Study of Religion, that is, looking at scholarly definitions and scholarly approaches to the study of religion. We’re exploring among other things, together with my students, questions like what is the study of religion? What is at stake in naming/defining/classifying things in this or that way? Although this early in the semester one question that prevails is: Continue reading “Now You Have Taken It Too Far”
As I was standing in line at a restaurant the other day, I overheard two women discussing how awful that “lion business” was, and how they thought that the man who had shot the lion should himself be shot. Chances are that you know what I’m talking about without me having to recount the story; the subject, of course, was Cecil, the lion from Zimbabwe whose recent illegal death at the hands of a for-profiit hunting enterprise garnered worldwide attention.
In the weeks before Cecil’s death, Sandra Bland died as well. Hopefully, you also know her story: she was the black woman pulled over for a minor traffic violation (failure to use a turn signal) whose subsequent arrest and then death while in police custody continues to be shrouded in controversy. Bland’s name is another unfortunate addition to the #SayHerName campaign, a movement devoted to highlighting how, like their male counterparts, young black women are disproportionately killed by law enforcement and yet their deaths are largely underreported in comparison. Continue reading “Cecil and Sandra: Emotions, Threat, Names”
While names become a personal part of our identification, ironically, most of us had no choice in our name. At least for many in the contemporary United States, the family choose the name before the baby is even born, making the name more about their prior image than something about the baby itself. A few people change their name legally, and many decide what form of the name they prefer. (Please call me Steven; it really is not too much effort to add that second syllable.) Both situations require recognition from others, either a court or those with whom you interact. (In my experience, that second syllable is too much to ask of some people, sigh.) Continue reading “The Irony of Names”
My family is a family of identifiers. Whether it is a bird, tree, or salamander, we are often dissatisfied until we know which species it is. Thus we have binoculars and a whole shelf of Field Guides for identifying much of the flora and fauna. While others can certainly dissect the psychological interests behind the desire to know these names, the process of observation intrigues me. Continue reading “Filters, Filters Everywhere”
What’s in a name? In “How Algorithms Shape Our World” (a Ted Talk from 2011), Kevin Slavin describes the mysterious work of algorithms to determine prices on Amazon, recommend movies on Netflix, and control institutional buying and selling in the stock market, sometimes even beyond human control. In the midst of these issues, he makes a general statement about the context of naming (beginning at about 6:00 in the video below), “And they do what we’ve always done when confronted with huge amounts of data that we don’t understand — which is that they give them a name and a story.” Continue reading “A Name and A Story”